If you receive direct deposits from the Social Security Administration but haven’t yet registered at the agency’s new online account management portal, now would be a good time take care of that: The SSA and financial institutions say they are tracking a rise in cases wherein identity thieves register an account at the SSA’s portal using a retiree’s personal information and have that retiree’s benefits diverted to prepaid debit cards that the crooks control.
Traditional SSA fraud involves identity thieves tricking the beneficiary’s bank into diverting the payments to another account, either through Social Security’s 800 number or through a financial institution, or through Treasury’s Direct Express program. The newer version of this fraud involves the abuse of the SSA’s my Social Security Web portal, which opened last year and allows individuals to create online accounts with the SSA to check their earnings and otherwise interact with the agency relative to their accounts.
Jonathan Lasher, assistant inspector general for external relations at the SSA’s Office of Inspector General, said that for several years the agency was receiving about 50 such allegations a day, though those numbers have begun to decline. But thieves didn’t go away: They just changed tactics. The trouble really began earlier this year, when the Treasury started requiring that almost all beneficiaries receive payments through direct deposit (though the SSA says paper checks are still available to some beneficiaries under limited circumstances).
At the same time, the SSA added the ability to change direct deposit information via their my Social Security Web portal. Shortly thereafter, the agency began receiving complaints that identity thieves were using the portal to hijack the benefits of individuals who had not yet created an account at the site. According to Lasher, as of August 23, 2013, the SSA has received 18,417 allegations of possibly fraudulent mySocialSecurity account activity. Lasher said while some of the complaints are the result of unsuccessful attempts to open an account fraudulently, some are indeed fraud.
“Social Security has already improved security over this online feature, and we continue to work with them to make additional improvements, while also investigating allegations we receive,” Lasher said. “While it’s an issue we’re taking very seriously, it’s important to keep in mind that about 62 million people receive some type of payment from SSA every month, so the likelihood of becoming a victim is very small, particularly if you’re careful about protecting your personal information.”
Because it’s possible to create just one my Social Security account per Social Security number, registering an account on the portal is one basic way that consumers can avoid becoming victims of this scam. Lasher said in the SSA’s systems, every record is tied to the SSN rather than a person’s name, since there are so many duplicate names.
“Of course, the one way to ensure that no one opens an account in your name is to open one yourself,” Lasher said. “Given the nature of other articles on your site, I think it’s important that I point out that there is no suggestion that SSA’s systems have been compromised; this is an identity theft scheme aimed at redirecting existing benefits, often to prepaid debit cards.”