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Crime & Safety
Every week, join Whitney Quick as she helps you navigate life as a smart consumer. You'll cover everything in avoiding the latest scams, including phishing emails, medical equipment fraud, understanding layaway, hiring a reputable tax preparer, and even digital spring cleaning. Add to your toolbox and flip through your Consumer Handbook Thursdays during NPR’s Morning Edition at 6:42 a.m. and 8:42 a.m., only on KRCU.

Consumer Handbook: Government Imposter Scams Prey On Fear During Pandemic

Daniel Grothe/Flickr, License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

One of the most common scams in the U.S. today involves callers pretending to be government officials. Some claim to be tax officials and representatives from the Social Security Administration; others claim to be law enforcement officers and threaten legal consequences. All of them use fear and intimidation to trick victims into turning over personal information or money, often in the form of gift cards or prepaid debit cards. 

Many scammers have also taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by posing as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, Internal Revenue Service representatives who can expedite economic impact payments, or contact tracers employed with local government agencies.

A new investigative study by Better Business Bureau finds that while the number of government scam reports has fluctuated, scams have become more diverse and more sophisticated. In 2019, BBB reports about scammers impersonating tax officials dropped sharply, while reports about Social Security Administration impersonators quadrupled in the U.S.

In many cases, scammers insist they are law enforcement officers and threaten to arrest people immediately if they do not pay money, usually with gift cards. They may tell consumers their Social Security number has been associated with a crime, or may threaten to deport recent immigrants or arrest people for missing jury duty. Other scam callers lure victims with the promise of a “free” government grant, which they claim will be awarded if the victim pays a fee with a gift card or prepaid debit card. In reality, there is no grant. 

Government impostor scams are constantly evolving, and they prey on people with threats of being arrested if money is not paid or personal information provided. 

Here’s how you can spot and avoid someone impersonating a government agency:

  1. The IRS generally first contacts people by mail about unpaid taxes, not by phone.Never provide your bank account or other personal information to anyone who calls you.

  2. Don’t pay by gift card. The IRS and other government agencies will not insist on payment using an iTunes card, gift card, prepaid debit card, money order, bitcoin or by sending cash.

  3. The IRS will never request personal or financial information by email, text, or any social media. Don’t click on links in emails or text messages.

  4. Caller ID cannot be trusted to confirm that the source of the call is a government agency. Look up the phone number for the real agency and call to see if they are really trying to contact you, and why.

  5. The Social Security Administration will never threaten to arrest you because of an identity theft problem.