Targeting Misleading Communications in Social Media and Mobile Apps

Beyond the Numbers

Date: 
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Posted by: 
Andrew Cannarsa, Office of External Relations

Social Security’s official Twitter account has more than 17,000 followers; every day, SSA tweets information about applying for Social Security benefits, and answers frequently asked questions.

But with so much interest in a government Twitter handle like @SocialSecurity, imposter accounts were bound to materialize, as seen in this photo.

When @SociSecurity appeared last year with an SSA emblem as its profile photo, and began tweeting Social Security-related information, SSA alerted our Office of the Counsel to the Inspector General.

Our Office of Counsel—which is made up of the Counsel to the Inspector General, the Deputy Counsel, and a staff of attorneys—enforces Section 1140 of the Social Security Act. To summarize, the law prohibits people and organizations from using Social Security words and symbols in communications in any way that could mislead the public to believe that Social Security has an official connection with that communication. You can read here the detailed explanation of Section 1140, or watch this video. Section 1140 also prohibits people or organizations from charging a fee for an otherwise-free Social Security form or publication without authorization.

In this case, we worked promptly with Twitter to suspend the @SociSecurity account, which violated Section 1140. We—and SSA—were primarily concerned that the account would spread incorrect information and confuse people into thinking they were communicating directly with SSA.

In another case, we insisted on changes to a “Social Security Disability Blog” Facebook page, which used an emblem that appeared to be official and was classified as a “Government Website.” The account no longer uses that particular emblem, and is no longer classified as a “Government Website.”

We also work with Google and Apple to discontinue the sale of mobile apps that are developed or marketed by third parties but appear to have an official SSA connection.

With these recent examples in mind, we want to warn you—and ask you to spread the word—to be on guard for misleading Internet Social Security-related advertisements and communications, including those on social media and mobile apps.

Section 1140 scams can include:

  • Websites misleadingly designed to appear as SSA’s official website or officially authorized by SSA (see example below). Official-sounding web addresses or domain names—like SocialSecurityHome.com, SocialSecurityAdministration.org, gov-tax.net/ssn-card, or GovSSNrecords.us—used by themselves or along with misleading websites, can create the false impression of an SSA connection.

  • Sale of SSA publications, forms, and services otherwise provided free of charge. SSA offers its publications and forms and Social Security-related services free of charge at its official website located at www.SocialSecurity.gov or www.ssa.gov and at 1,400 field offices across the country. Third parties are allowed to sell SSA publications and forms if they obtain SSA authorization and follow prescribed regulations.  Third parties are even allowed to charge fees for Social Security-related services offered for free by SSA if they notify people that the product or service is available free of charge from SSA, and if they comply with standards prescribed by SSA regarding the content of that notification, and how they notify people (for instance, where the notification is placed and how visible and legible it is).
  • Social Security Disability Representation. Some websites are misleadingly designed to appear as SSA’s official website or as if they are authorized by SSA, but their actual purpose is to obtain people’s personal information to generate leads for either attorney or non-attorney Social Security disability advocacy services. SSA does not endorse Social Security disability advocates.
  • Email Phishing Scams. We are aware of several email phishing scams that use SSA as the hook to get you to open and respond to the email. Purporting to be from SSA, these emails were designed to steal your personal email account login ID and password.
  • “Lead Card” mailings appearing to be official SSA mailings or authorized by SSA. Often these mailings ask for your personal information—they are nothing more than a mechanism to generate leads so a company can then try to sell you insurance or some other product. SSA does not sell or endorse the sale of commercially available products. 

If you ever question the legitimacy of any Social Security-related communication, you can report that directly to the OIG through our Fraud Hotline, online at http://oig.ssa.gov/report or by phone Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST, at (800) 269-0271.  And our Office of Counsel will keep working diligently, with SSA, to protect the public by identifying and eliminating misleading communications involving Social Security.

More information: Section 1140 Case Examples