With the start of 2020 Census count, scammers and con artists are going to toss their “pitches” at older Americans. The census is too important to allow them to succeed.
That is why the AARP and U.S. Census Bureau are working hard to protect vulnerable seniors and all citizens.
From March 12 through March 20, the Census Bureau is mailing invitations to all U.S. residents to complete the 2020 count, as required by the U.S. Constitution. This year, for the first time, residents will be asked to complete the questionnaire online, which opens the doors to even more scams than in previous years. Households will also have the option of using a paper questionnaire or answering questions over the phone.
The population count plays a critical role in determining how some $1.5 trillion are distributed to the nation’s communities through more than 300 federal aid programs covering health, nutrition, school lunches, housing, transportation, mental health and more, as was done in 2017. The census also determines political representation in Congress and state legislatures.
With the work of counting the more than 350 million American residents, there is growing concern that many will fall victim to sophisticated scammers, who already exploit beneficiaries of government programs through social media and internet fraud. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Aging, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins, reported in 2019 that older Americans lose almost $3 billion annually to an increasing number of financial scams, most of which is never recovered.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 176,000 calls about imposter scams, amounting to $56 million in losses by late spring, according to CNET, a technology and consumer products website. The majority of these criminals pretended to be from the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the FTC, “individuals are called with threats or promises of receiving money. These scammers may tell people that their Social Security number has been suspended, which does not happen, or that they are facing arrest because they owe back taxes, and they demand payment from the consumer to avoid getting into trouble. Often, they require a consumer pay with a gift card, which is a dead giveaway that the consumer is dealing with a scammer.”
Scammers are very shrewd and adept at capitalizing on current events, including the Census. A nationwide AARP survey released on Feb. 19 found: 70 percent of respondents were not familiar with census-related scams; 69 percent did not know or were unsure if the Census Bureau will send out questionnaires via the U.S. mail (it will); and 35 percent did not know or were unsure whether they will be asked for a Social Security number (they won’t be).
U.S. citizens should be aware that all Census Bureau correspondence is sent through the U.S. mail. Any email from the Census Bureau with a link to a questionnaire is a scam. In addition, the census will never ask for Social Security numbers, drivers license numbers, mother’s maiden name, bank accounts, credit card numbers or passwords, so this information should never be provided.
The census will never request money or a fee. And, while failing to respond could result in a small fine in rare circumstances, it cannot lead to jail time. Threats about arrest indicate a scam is taking place. To report a scam, or obtain help if a scam took place, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network at 877-908-3360.
A complete census count is critical. The information gathered helps define where people are living or moving to, where businesses should locate, the needs of health and community programs and political representation. Extensive safeguards are built into the census operation to protect the information that is obtained. All U.S. citizens, including minor children, students and members of the military, must be counted.
So get ready for the census. The Census Bureau and your fellow Americans are counting on you.
James Campbell is president of AARP Maryland. This column was originally published in The Baltimore Sun.