What Is Section 1140?
Section 1140 of the Social Security Act is a consumer protection tool against misleading advertising that prohibits the use of SSA words and symbols in advertisements, solicitations, or other communications in a manner that conveys the false impression that such item is approved, endorsed, or authorized by SSA, or that such person has some connection with, or authorization from, SSA.
There are several types of communications that violate Section 1140 and take many forms, such as misleading mobile applications, deceptive paper-based mailers, misleading attorney advertising, misleading Internet URLs and websites (examples of misleading websites are shown below), and Internet-based sale of Social Security forms. Section 1140 prohibits the fee-based reproduction, reprinting or distribution of SSA forms, applications or other publications without authorization from SSA.
People found in violation of Section 1140 are subject to civil monetary penalties of up to $5,000 for each violation, and a penalty of not more than $25,000 in the case of such misuse related to a broadcast or telecast.
Types of Internet Scams
OIG’s Section 1140 Internet-based cases involve the misrepresentation of a connection with SSA (i.e., pretending to be SSA or somehow officially connected with SSA) for the purpose of:
- selling SS-5’s, Application for a Social Security Card, or other SSA Forms to an individual that SSA provides free of charge. This type of scam targets mainly newlyweds who need to change their name and/or applying to obtain a Social Security number for a newborn;
- generating Social Security disability leads for attorneys or other claimant representatives;
- selling SSN verification services; or
- solely to obtain an individual’s Personal Identifying Information.
Emerging areas of Internet scams include the app marketing and social media (e.g., Twitter).
Section 1140 Outreach Programs
In response to the increase in Internet-based fraud schemes, OIG's Office of the Counsel to the Inspector General (OCIG) launched a Section 1140 Outreach Program at the beginning of Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. OCIG has successfully collaborated with major search engine companies, domain registrar companies, and financial institutions that would-be scammers need to conduct their Internet-based schemes. These efforts have educated these companies about Section 1140 and helped OIG gain valuable insight into key technical aspects of how these scams operate. These companies are now working with the OIG to establish mechanisms to quickly and efficiently identify and halt fraud schemes, and they are implementing proactive mechanisms with the goal of preventing fraud schemes from occurring.
Based on our outreach efforts, Google and Microsoft (which powers both Bing and Yahoo! search engines) have modified their guidelines policies to protect its users from advertisements, websites, and businesses that create the false impression of a connection with a government agency.
With our help, a credit card company created a filtering system to identify websites that may violate Section 1140 and accept its credit card as a form of payment. The company now refers all websites that it identifies through this filtering system to the OIG for review. This proactive approach has allowed us to take immediate action to shut down websites operating in violation of Section 1140 within a few weeks after receiving notification.
Since the initiation of our Outreach Program in FY 2012, the OIG has successfully shut down dozens of Internet-based fraud schemes. We are in the process of expanding our outreach efforts and collaboration with the private sector even further, to ensure that Internet-based avenues such as mobile apps and social networking sites do not become the next means for Social Security-related fraud.
You can learn more about our Section 1140 Outreach Program in the Fall/Winter 2011/2012 edition of the Journal of Public Inquiry, in an article titled, "An Ounce of Outreach is Worth a Pound of Enforcement," available here.
To watch a video about our Section 1140 Outreach Program, check out the OIG's video gallery.
Notable Section 1140 Cases