When a retired professor answered his phone in July, an official-sounding man said he was an agent with the Social Security Administration and was calling to tell the man he had been ensnared in an international ring. Traffickers from Mexico had gotten the 81-year-old’s name and Social Security number and were using the information to help smuggle drugs and people across the border into El Paso, the caller said. The story seemed hard to believe, but the purported agent knew the man’s Social Security number, list properties the man had purchased 20 years ago, and knew his banks, reports the Washington Post. The scammer told him he needed to purchase thousands of dollars worth of gift cards and withdraw tens of thousands from the bank. The money would be used as a lure to help catch the traffickers. He was told the money would be returned.
The professor had already dropped a box full of cash at a San Francisco FedEx by the time his partner heard about what was happening. Authorities were notified, followed by a cross-country scramble to get the box before the scammers did in Virginia. “I was ashamed, quite frankly,” the man said. “How could I be conned like that?” Government impersonation scams are an exploding category of crime with losses increasing tenfold from $12.5 million in 2017 to $124 million in 2019, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been one of the hardest hit. SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul says the number of complaints it receives about scam calls jumped from about 5,000 in 2018 to more than 60,000 in 2019.