Merkley Presses Authorities to Crack Down On Fraudulent Social Security Robocalls

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley today demanded that the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) take necessary steps to protect American families from fraudulent Social Security-related robocall schemes that are victimizing tens of thousands of consumers. For years, robocallers have swindled millions of dollars from American families and eroded public trust in the government agencies they impersonate.

“These unsolicited robocalls are not just an inconvenience to consumers, they are targeted attacks intended to collect personal information for monetary gain,” Merkley wrote. “Every call a consumer receives in which the caller pretends to be a government official will make consumers question the legitimacy of authentic communication from government agencies, including the SSA.”

“I request that the SSA and the FTC share what actions are being taken to limit robocall scams in general, and specifically to address robocalls impersonating federal agencies,” Merkley continued.

Although the FCC acknowledges that “unwanted calls are far and away the biggest consumer complaint” the agency receives, unauthorized call scams continue to be a prevalent, persistent issue. Earlier this year, Senator Merkley received a number of automated calls impersonating an official from the Social Security Administration, in which the caller claimed to have received suspicious information and threatened to “suspend” his Social Security Number (SSN) immediately – unless Senator Merkley could confirm his SSN over the phone.

In 2018, 35,000 Americans across America reported this specific call, which resulted in $10 million in losses. In the previous year, only 3,200 families were affected by this scam, losing only $210,000, highlighting the escalating severity and frequency of fraudulent automated call schemes.

In April, Senator Merkley and Congresswoman Anna G. Eschoo (D-CA) introduced the Regulatory Oversight Barring Obnoxious (ROBO) Calls and Texts Act of 2019. This legislation would create a Robocall Division within the FCC Enforcement Bureau to reinforce robocall regulations, and require the FCC to develop regulations to keep consumers safe from fraudulent robocall schemes.

The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.

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The Honorable Nancy Berryhill

Acting Commissioner

Social Security Administration
1905 9th Street NE

Washington, DC 20018

The Honorable Joseph Simons

Chairman

Federal Trade Commission 
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20580

Dear SSA Acting Commissioner Berryhill and FTC Chairman Simons,

I am writing to express alarm about the recent uptick in bad actors impersonating Social Security Administration (SSA) officials and to request information on what steps are being taken to address these scams. These unsolicited robocalls are not just an inconvenience to consumers, they are targeted attacks intended to collect personal information for monetary gain.

Earlier this year, I received an automated call impersonating an official from the SSA in which the caller claimed to suspend my Social Security Number (SSN) on an “immediate basis” because they received suspicious information. The message also claimed that if they did not hear back from me, an arrest warrant under my name would be issued, and I was instructed to call back to settle the case.

In December 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a blog post on its website regarding “Fake calls about your SSN.” The post highlighted how these calls are a scam and that the SSA will never call to ask for your Social Security Number. However, another blog post later the same month emphasized that this was a growing problem with more than 35,000 people reporting this scam and that they lost $10 million in 2018 compared with only 3,200 losing only $210,000 in 2017. It is clear that these calls are continuing and are more than a mere nuisance – they are costing American families millions.

While seniors in particular are frequent targets of fraudulent calls, 5.1 billion robocalls were made to Americans in October 2018 alone, impersonations of government agencies like SSA are particularly insidious. Every call a consumer receives in which the caller pretends to be a government official will make consumers question the legitimacy of authentic communication from government agencies, including the SSA.

Unsolicited calls like the one I received endanger the financial security and right to privacy of millions of Americans, as well as the ability of agencies like SSA to effectively discharge their missions. I request that the SSA and the FTC share what actions are being taken to limit robocall scams in general, and specifically to address robocalls impersonating federal agencies. Further, what steps is SSA taking to educate Social Security recipients about how the agency will communicate with them and how to spot fraudulent communications? Is the FTC working with other government agencies to share common scams and recommend such educational strategies? 

I look forward to working with you to protect consumers from these fraudulent calls and respectfully request a reply within 30 days.

Martina McLennan

Deputy Communications Director

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley

(202) 224-3753