Scammers Are Impersonating Government Agencies More Than Ever

Tero Vesalainen/

The Federal Trade Commission warns that criminals’ “favorite ruse” is pretending to be from a government agency.

The Federal Trade Commission received more complaints about scammers impersonating the government this spring than ever before, the agency announced this week. 

Between March and May 2019, the agency received about 127,600 complaints about scams involving someone falsely claiming to be from an agency or other government entity, according to an interactive infographic using data from FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network. 

The agency received about 46,600 complaints in May alone, topping the previous high of 38,400 reports in September 2016. So far this year, the agency fielded almost 200,000 government imposter reports, totaling over $55 million in financial loss. Though a relatively low percentage of consumers said they lost money from the scams, the median amount people reported losing from these incidents this year was $1,000. 

Since 2014, FTC garnered nearly 1.3 million reports of government imposters with reported losses of more than $450 million—more than any other type of fraud reported in the same period. 

“These scams can be extremely lucrative,” the FTC said. “Government impersonators can create a sense of urgent fear, telling you to send money right away or provide your Social Security number to avoid arrest or some other trouble. Or they can play the good guy, promising to help you get some free benefit like a grant or prize, or even a back brace.”

The agency said between January 2018 and May 2019, the vast majority—96%—of reports of this type of scam said they were contacted by telephone. The recent spike in scams by phone may be caused by new advancements in technology that have made it easier and cheaper to “spoof” caller ID, which conceals the true identities of those who make the calls. 

Source: FTC

Scammers most often pretend to be from the Social Security Administration, though FTC found they also claim to be from Health and Human Services, the IRS, and the FBI, among others.

These scammers will tell people their Social Security number has been suspended—“which does not happen,” FTC said—or that they are facing arrest because they owe back taxes. 

“Often, they demand that a consumer pay with a gift card, which is a dead giveaway that the consumer is dealing with a scammer,” it added. Wire transfers came in at a distant second in terms of payment choice.

FTC reminded consumers to be suspicious of any calls that allege to be from federal agencies asking for money. 

“Government agencies don’t call you with threats, or promises of—or demands for—money,” it said. “Scammers do.”