Police: Scam tells victims to pay or have Social Security number canceled

Police are warning Big Island residents to be wary of a recent string of telephone scams by people posing as government officials.

According to police, people around the island have reported being contacted over the phone by people identifying themselves as local, state or federal officials who claim they are “investigating” the victim on behalf of the U.S. Social Security Administration.

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As the scam goes, the victim is told that their financial information has been linked to an organized crime investigation, and that unless the victim pays a fine, their Social Security number will be canceled and financial assets frozen.

The victim is intended to make the withdrawal and purchase a “Social Security Lock card” — but no such thing exists.

When the victim obviously is unable to purchase the card, they are instructed to instead purchase gift cards and send the gift cards’ serial numbers to the scammers. The perpetrators provide fake badge and case numbers to convince the victim, and give a fake telephone number that only goes to a recorded message.

The Federal Trade Commission warns that no legitimate enterprise uses gift cards as a form of payment in this way, and that anyone asking for a payment via gift cards is almost certainly a scammer.

The FTC also advises that the Social Security Administration will never threaten to suspend a Social Security number if a fine is not paid.

Hawaiian Electric on Thursday reported similar scams being used on customers throughout the state. The scammer poses as a Hawaiian Electric representative and threatens immediate power disconnection if a payment is not made.

“Hawaiian Electric will never threaten immediate disconnection,” Hawaiian Electric said in a statement. “During the pandemic, past-due customers receive mailed payment reminders, courtesy calls, email and other communications before any disconnection notice is sent.”

As the holiday season approaches, people should be on the lookout for a greater variety of scams.

“In our experience, there’s not really an increase in the number of scams we hear about around the holidays,” said Craig Gima, communications director for AARP Hawaii. “It’s more like the forms they take are going to change.”

Gima said gift card scams are common year-round, but especially during the holiday season, when people are making frequent gift purchases.

Other gift card scams operate in an inverse way to the Social Security gift card scam: The scammer steals gift cards off the rack and offers to sell the card’s number, which is worthless unless the card has been legitimately purchased.

Other scams to watch out for during the holidays are those impersonating officers of financial institutions or online marketplaces.

With all the transactions people make over the holidays, Gima said, it can be easy for a person to fall for someone who claims an online payment didn’t go through, or that a package delivery has failed.

Some scams even impersonate people believed to be intimately trustworthy.

“There are some scams I’ve seen where the victim sent a letter to Santa Claus and included personal information,” Gima said.

Hawaiian Electric reported that some scams also send what appear to be legitimate Hawaiian Electric emails using the name of an actual Hawaiian Electric employee.

“Scammers are smart,” Gima went on. “They’re always looking for new ways to get people.”

Gima said the elderly are often the most vulnerable. He said AARP Hawaii receives hundreds of calls from seniors or their caretakers reporting that they had been scammed or the targets of an attempted scam.

“The basic advice I have is: ‘Don’t click the link!’” Gima said. “Don’t call the number they give you. Don’t click on the email they send. Don’t give out any information about yourself.”

If a person receives a suspicious contact, Gima said they should reach out directly to the organization that supposedly contacted them, not through any number provided by the suspicious contact, but through the organization’s direct line.

But, Gima added, if an elderly family member is repeatedly falling for scams, banks may allow a person to monitor that family member’s finances directly.

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“Just remember that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is … and unless you absolutely know a person, don’t send them any kind of personal information,” Gima said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.