SSA warns about scammers, DHS looks for ways to thwart them

Scammers continue imitating government agencies to get their money or personal information, but the federal government is looking at ways to fight back.

A new report from the Social Security Administration’s OIG warned that people are getting calls that appear to come from the office’s Fraud Hotline. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Science and Technology is exploring options to make these calls a thing of the past.

The SSA OIG said scammers are claiming to be from the agency’s “legal department,” that the call recipient’s Social Security number has been involved in a crime or that federal marshals will arrest the recipient if they don’t send payment, often in the form of prepaid gift or debit cards.

“SSA and OIG employees do contact citizens by telephone for official purposes, and they may request the citizen confirm personal information over the phone. However, the calls do not appear on caller ID as the Fraud Hotline number of (800) 269-0271. Also, SSA and OIG employees will never threaten you for information or promise any type of official action in exchange for personal information or payment. In those cases, the call is fraudulent, and you should just hang up,” the SSA OIG said in a statement.

This is not the first time scammers have impersonated federal agencies or employees in order to extract money or personal information. Previously, they’ve impersonated the IRS, the Office of Personnel Management, contracting officials from the General Services Administration, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, among others.

But for anyone who’s ever had to deal with these scammers, or even just average everyday robocallers, there’s hope.

DHS S&T has engaged a number of contractors through the Small Business Innovation Research program to innovate around solutions to this problem. Each of these solutions has a different problem it’s trying to solve. For example, one company, Anavation LLC, is working on a Do Not Originate list, which would restrict the phone numbers that could be spoofed. That would let agencies lock down their numbers proactively, and any scammer making a call that is supposed to look like it’s coming from SSA, for example, it would instead appear as “fraudulent call” on the recipient’s phone display.

Fraud mitigation

Another company, Illuma Labs, is working on voice pattern matching software that would allow agencies to identify the voices of known fraudsters in real-time and deny them access to sensitive data.

Milind Borkar, founder and CEO of Illuma labs, said working with DHS S&T has lent his organization a level of credibility that can be difficult for startups to obtain.

“The fact that we received this funding from an esteemed organization like DHS S&T has made those conversations significantly easier. It has helped us toward the path of commercialization much quicker by identifying some of the gaps in some of the more prevalent competitors out there,” he told lawmakers during an April 2 roundtable briefing for the House Homeland Security Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Innovation subcommittee.

But that’s not the only door government could open to make his company’s work more likely to succeed, he said. Access to government data would enable him to create much more comprehensive databases of known fraudster voice patterns.

“One example I can give is Secret Service has a task force toward addressing financial fraud. Looking back over those recorded phone calls and building up a very solid database of known fraudster voices could be significantly valuable, [which Secret Service] could bring to organizations as a value proposition,” Borkar said.

And once these databases are built, they could benefit even further from sharing these databases among the various clients. The problem, he said, is existing data sharing laws. Different states have different laws for the rights around the data collected. Borkar said some states, like Texas, actually confer the data rights for biometrics to the user rather than the organization that collects them, which makes data sharing much more difficult.

“Perhaps the challenge for this committee is to divine a way to allow sharing of information with vendors that are trusted to know ‘these are the numbers to look out for,’” said Rep. Van Taylor (R-Texas).

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