Introduction

With the evolution of the internet, online services have grabbed the attention of every sector, including the government. Nowadays, online amenities are available in almost all government institutions, especially when it comes to visa applications, immigration, family and child registration, railway or airline tickets, e-banking, paying utility bills, taxes, government grants or employment opportunities. According to the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of internet users completed their transactions on a government website or looked for information online.

The problem may arise when communication takes place between an individual and government agencies, whether such communication is through a website, phone calls, emails, fax, or text messages. Hackers use government references and threats of government action to trick people into taking actions that result in losing their sensitive information or money. For example, government imposters become more active during tax season in order to spread malware and phishing emails. They can trick you into providing your credentials, such as login name, password or other banking details to transfer money or perform other dangerous acts.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of the U.S., more than 200,000 complaints have been received from individuals who have been contacted by fraudsters claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration or other government agency.

In this article, we’ll explore how the government imposter scam works. We’ll look at common government-related scams and red flags and recommend ways to avoid government imposter scams.

How does a government imposter scam work?

The FTE reports that most government imposter scams start with a phone call. Government imposters can create a sense of urgency involving fear, asking you to send money promptly. In addition, they might also require your government ID number to avoid arrest, claiming that you have unpaid taxes.

Government imposters mostly employ gift cards as their payment method. According to FTE, most complaints reveal that a victim gives his or her PIN number, which is located on the back of the gift cards like iTunes cards or Google Play, to scammers. Government imposters also ask for wire transfers.

What are some common government-related scams?

According to NBC News, “Calling people and pretending to be with a government agency — IRS, Social Security, ICE, DEA, or the local sheriff’s department — is a ruse that’s been lucrative for years. But these imposter scams have now hit an all-time high.” The Federal Trade Commission of the U.S. lists the following top government imposter scams:

Government grant scams

If you’re a chairman of the union council or any government servant who delivers government services at the grassroots level, you’re more likely to be a victim of government grant scams. 

Scammers attempt to get money by promising a grant to the victim for costs like the construction of streets, repairing the government schools or public washrooms, or construction of water plants. They ask that the victim pay a “processing fee” or otherwise send money to guarantee the grant.

Lottery winning notice

Have you ever received a message notifying you of the winning of a federally supervised sweepstakes or lottery? The scammers might insist that you have to wire money immediately before you can collect your lottery, or you will have to pay service fees or taxes. 

Beware! This is a scam. No government asks for money transfer for arbitrary reasons similar to the ones we have just discussed.

Fake debt collection

In this government imposter scam, threat actors use a threatening message for debt collection. They impersonate a government agency or law firm and threaten to arrest a victim if he or she would not pay their phony debt on time. They may even have a victim’s ID number and address to make their scam appear legitimate.

What are the common red flags for government-related scams?

Government messages grab attention because they might involve punishment, reward or rendering obligatory services. Government imposter scams may use:

  • A threatening tone, such as someone calling from the FBI to notify you about an arrest warrant
  • Pressure by asking you to respond promptly (i.e., before you can think the situation through)
  • The promise of phantom riches, such as prizes or lottery winnings
  • A guaranteed success
  • Promises for high returns: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
  • Unsolicited and unexpected offers
  • A phony version of the Social Security Administration or another government welfare bureau

Recommendations

Don’t trust unsolicited phone calls. Typically, no bank requires an immediate money transfer or login credentials through a phone call. Don’t trust someone who offers a vacation package or free prizes. If a caller offers travel packages, charities or business opportunities, conduct your independent research to verify it. If you are a U.S. citizen, register your phone number with the National Do Not Call Registry.

Beware of spoofed websites that are apparently similar to the official websites but aren’t actually connected.

Don’t trust an email impersonating your government bank and asking you to verify your bank account or credit card number. Beware of free trials or lotteries that ask for your banking details. Report fake and counterfeit checks or fraudulent emails to your bank.

Beware of emails or phone calls about free government grants or advertisements. Go to the official government grant website, such as Grants.gov for U.S. citizens, to verify the offer.

Don’t disclose your government-issued username and password to anyone.

Use firewalls, antivirus and anti-spyware software and keep them up to date. They can help you stay protected even if you inadvertently click on the malicious link or attachment.

Conclusion

Government imposter scams are very common and dangerous as well. They involve the malicious tactics of fear, sensational news or big rewards that apparently seem true but are false in reality. 

According to the FTE, most government imposter scams start with a phone call. The most common government-related phishing scams are government grant scams, lottery win notices and fake debt collection.

Always stay vigilant against any unsolicited or unexpected phone call. Report it to the respective agency of the government. Stay informed with the latest government imposter scams. Install firewalls, antivirus, and anti-spyware software and keep them updated.

 

Sources

  1. Government Online, Pew Research Center (Internet & Technology)
  2. Avoiding Online Tax Scams, Center for Internet Security (CIS)
  3. Common Scams and Frauds, usa.gov
  4. Government Imposter Scams, Michigan.gov (Department of Attorney General)
  5. Red Flags of Fraud, North Dakota Securities Department
  6. How to Identify and Avoid Phishing, Office of the Chief Information Officer (Canada)
  7. Beware of Fraudulent Emails – Phishing Scams, Federal Board of Revenue (Government of Pakistan)
  8. Get a call from the Social Security Administration? It’s the latest government imposter scam, NBC News