ID Thieves Posing as Government Workers

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Identity thieves have developed a new scam to trick people into giving up personal data: They're calling consumers, posing as government workers who need information. Alex Chadwick speaks with Day to Day personal finance contributor Michelle Singletary about the new scams and some strategies for avoiding them.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

You know that old line, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you. People using the line now may be part of a new wave of identity theft. These thieves call on the phone, they claim to be from your state or local government and ask for personal information to clear up some problems in the records. And then they use what you tell them to rob you. For information about these scams and how to avoid them, we're joined now by Michelle Singletary. She writes the syndicated column The Color of Money. She's DAY TO DAY'S regular guest on matters of personal finance. Michelle, welcome back. What about these scams?

Ms. MICHELLE SINGLETARY (Columnist): There are three in particular that are circulating around the country in many states. One is called the jury-duty scam. One is you get a call from someone claiming to be from the Health Department, and yet another from someone saying that you may have unclaimed, a bank account or some funds somewhere, they're trying to help you get that money.

CHADWICK: The Department of Unclaimed Funds. And then there's a Health Department scam too? What do they want to know?

Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, with the Health Department scam, they call and say, you know, you've got some money coming to you to help with your medical expenses, or some grant or something to that extent. And then in some cases they have some of your information and they want you to confirm it, and what happens is people are then giving their Social Security number, perhaps even their bank account number so that money can be deposited into their bank account. And that's what's so insidious about it, because they may have little pieces of your personal information, and they ask you to confirm it. But what they're really trying to do is get, for example, your bank account number or they may have part of your Social Security number and ask you to confirm the rest of it.

CHADWICK: And you would kind of buy into this perhaps because it's someone from the government calling and you think, Okay, well, they've got part of this information and that's normal.

Ms. SINGLETARY: That's exactly right. For example, with the jury-duty scam, they call and they scare people, say, You missed jury duty and do you know there's a warrant out for your arrest? And so that unnerves folks, and they go, Well, I definitely want to clear this up. And then they give them the personal information they need to commit identity theft.

CHADWICK: I hate to say this, but that's brilliant. I'd fall for that one.

Ms. SINGLETARY: It's absolutely brilliant because of course we all want to do our civic duty, and so if you think you've missed a notice you want to make sure to clear that up. And you're so focused on that part that you don't realize that in the process they're trying to get your personal information. In that particular case they're mostly trying to get your Social Security number, which unlocks the door to a lot of information about you.

CHADWICK: So how big a problem is this overall?

Ms. SINGLETARY: It's a huge problem. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission just came out with their top ten consumer fraud complaints, and identity theft was number one. You can spend up to two years clearing this up if this happens to you.

CHADWICK: Suppose someone has heard you talking about this and then subsequently they get one of these calls at home, and suddenly a light goes off in their head and they say, Hey, this is one of these government scammer types that Michelle was talking about. What should they do?

Ms. SINGLETARY: First of all, you should try to actually play a little detective. Get as much information from them as you can. Where are they calling from? If you have caller ID, take note of the number so that you can A) tell the local authorities or call the Federal Trade Commission and report them. Because obviously we want to put a stop to this. But if anybody calls you trying to confirm some information, don't give them the information. Just as a blanket statement, just don't do it. You can always call back to confirm. Like with the jury duty scam, if you're scared that perhaps, you're thinking maybe I did, say, Okay, fine, I'm going to call my local courthouse and confirm what you're telling me.

CHADWICK: Michelle Singletary is a regular guest for conversations about personal finance. She also writes the Color of Money column for the Washington Post. Michelle, thank you again.

Ms. SINGLETARY: You're so welcome.

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