The third Wednesday of every month is important to Alexandra Lane—it’s the day about $1,200 in Social Security retirement benefits is electronically deposited into her checking account.
The 72-year-old Florida resident uses those funds—earned over 37 years of working as a nurse, teacher and local government administrator—to cover basic expenses and pay medical bills.
However, Mrs. Lane was distraught in March 2012 when she realized she didn’t have enough money to pay her bills, because she didn’t receive two Social Security benefit payments. She told the Senate Special Committee on Aging during a hearing on June 19 that her benefits were redirected to another bank account without her knowledge.
“I realized this situation was far more complex and of a criminal nature, and it scared me,” Mrs. Lane told Committee Chairman Bill Nelson, a Florida Senator.
The Social Security Administration ultimately corrected Mrs. Lane’s information and repaid her, but this fraud scheme continues to affect other Social Security beneficiaries across the country. Our office has determined that identity thieves are targeting vulnerable senior citizens, obtaining their personal by deceiving them with telemarketing or lottery schemes—or through other methods—and using that information to redirect their Social Security benefits to unauthorized bank accounts.
During the hearing, Committee members heard testimony from Mrs. Lane as well as Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll and other executives from SSA and the Treasury. The hearing’s focus was on protecting electronic benefit payments from fraud, and protecting senior citizens who become victims of this type of identity theft.
Our office has responded by opening multiple criminal investigations across the country and making several arrests, like the recent case of O’Brain Lynch. We’ve also completed several audits on direct deposit-related issues—you can read about our findings and recommendations in the Inspector General’s written statement for the record.
We’re working closely with SSA and the Treasury to address this issue. But now that almost all Social Security beneficiaries receive their payments electronically, you should know there are a few important steps you or your family members can take to protect your Social Security benefits and your personal information.
- SSA recently expanded the online services available through its my Social Security web portal. If you haven’t done so, you may want to establish a my Social Security account in your name to prevent someone from establishing a fraudulent account if they steal or obtain your personal information. You can do that at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.
- Be aware of the prevalence of phishing and lottery schemes—no reputable financial institution or company will ask for upfront money in exchange for winnings; or for personal information like a Social Security number or bank account number via phone, mail, or the Internet. Also, SSA and other government agencies will not call you and request your personal information. If someone does call you and claims to be an SSA or government worker, ask for their name and number, and then call your local SSA or other government office to verify the caller’s identity.
- Regularly monitor all of your personal and financial accounts for any irregularities, and report fraud immediately to the appropriate agencies. You can read more about that in in a previous blog entry about identity theft. If you do not receive a scheduled Social Security benefit payment, call Social Security toll free at 1-800-772-1213, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday (TTY 1-800-325-0778).
- Finally, if you do become a victim of identity theft and someone makes unauthorized changes to your Social Security records, you can block electronic access to your information in SSA records at www.socialsecurity.gov/blockaccess.
By knowing how to protect ourselves, we make life much more difficult for identity thieves.