Key Takeaways

  • Every day, scammers claiming to be from the IRS, Social Security Administration, Medicare, or other agency bilk Americans out of their money.

  • These criminals succeed because their tactics are both believable and relentless: older adults lost $200 million to such schemes in 2023 alone.

  • Learn how to identify and avoid current government imposter scams—and what to do if you’ve been scammed by phone, email, or text.

We take breaks, paid-time off, vacations, sabbaticals, rest. But for scammers looking to steal your money, there's never a break.

They call you. They text you. They email you. They message you on social media. They’re experts at disguise. And their tricks are so believable that you’ll want to give them your money.

Some of their tricks are so good, they'll even make you believe you're talking to the government. And they’re remarkably effective. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), older adults reported having lost a total of $200 million to government imposter scams in 2023 alone.1

If you haven’t encountered one or more of these thieves already, you almost certainly will. In late 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed action against one illegal telemarketing operation that alone was responsible for making over a billion scam calls to older adults.2 Among other things, government imposters claimed to provide assistance with Social Security and Medicare benefits.

“These kinds of scams have become a sad fact of life,” said Genevieve Waterman, Director, Corporate Partnerships & Engagement at NCOA. “And, while they can and do happen at any time, we definitely see some ebb and flow alongside certain predictable patterns.”

In other words: scammers are shameless opportunists who will take advantage of current events to improve their chances of success. “Medicare Open Enrollment Period is a prime example,” Waterman said. “Imposters know that calls and emails from ‘the government’ can seem especially legitimate around that time, so they step up their efforts.”

That’s why it’s important for people of all ages to be aware of the types of government imposter scams, how to identify them, and what to do if you or someone you know have been scammed by one.

What are the types of government imposter scams?

You get a call from the IRS saying you owe taxes. Or your inbox dings with a message instructing you to fill out a form with your Medicare number. Both are tricks designed to separate you from your money, your personal information, or both. And the cons don’t stop there.

“There likely are as many scams as there are government agencies,” Waterman said. “Imposters have even pretended to be the FTC inspector general himself! That said, some of these schemes are more common than others.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the list of top offenders includes:3,4

IRS imposter scams

You get a call (or voicemail) warning that the police or other authorities will show up at your door to arrest you or put you in jail if you don’t immediately pay money you didn’t know you owed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Medicare imposter scams

There are several variations of this hoax:

  • You get a call, email, text, or social media message “alerting” you that your new Medicare benefits card is ready.
  • You get a call, email, text, or social media message from someone offering to help you sign up for or change your plan.
  • You get a call, email, text, or social media message claiming that you’re eligible for a medical device you didn’t realize you needed.

In all cases, the person who contacted you explains that you simply need to provide your Medicare number, or pay a fee, in order to take advantage of the offer.

Social Security Administration imposter scams

You get a call, email, text, or social media message warning that your Social Security benefits are about to expire—or that they will be suspended because you owe money for a reason you previously weren’t aware of.

And be wary of contact that appears to be from the Department of Health and Human Services, too.5 “We’ve recently learned that people are getting scam calls claiming to be from the Eldercare Locator,” Waterman said, “which is of particular concern to us and the older adults we serve.”

How can you tell if it's a government imposter scam?

They charm you. They threaten you. They claim you’ll go to jail.

How can you tell if someone is truly who they say they are, particularly someone who works for the government?

No matter which agency they’re pretending to be from, government imposters share a common set of strategies. And knowing what those strategies are can help you identify the deceit.

Scammers are master manipulators whose mind games are top-notch,” Waterman said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t outsmart them.”

That starts with maintaining a healthy level of old-fashioned skepticism. “If someone you don’t know immediately starts pressuring you—on the phone, in a text, or another way—that’s a huge red flag,” she said.

Stay aware of these other common tactics that also indicate a scam:

  • Establishing credibility. A caller may mention their “government ID number,” text you a photo of their “employee badge,” or use official-sounding terms like “bureau” or “agency” to prove that they’re legitimate. They’re not.
  • Building rapport. An imposter may contact you repeatedly over the course of days, slowly working to convince you who they are, where they work, and why you need to comply with their request. None of it is true.
  • Demanding payment. A scammer will say that you need to wire money, make a bank transfer, send gift cards, or provide your credit card number in order to avoid a scary consequence, such as going to jail. This is wrong.
  • Threatening you. Criminals use intimidation to get what they want. They claim that you’ll be arrested or will lose your Social Security or Medicare benefits if you don’t immediately provide your personal information or pay money. Neither is true.

And Waterman warned of another important point: Scammers regularly use software to spoof the phone numbers of government agencies, and they know how to forge email addresses so the sender looks official. Both of these tricks increase the likelihood that you will pick up the phone or open a message.

“Never trust the number on your caller ID, or the email address in your inbox,” she said. “It’s sad but true that criminals know exactly how to mimic these things using a combination of modern technology and psychology.”

How do I avoid government imposter scams?

There’s no surefire way to dodge that ball entirely. The sheer and rising number of complaints that consumers file with the FTC shows that scammers remain one step ahead of efforts to stop them.

“Most of us will receive a fake phone call, email, or other communication from someone pretending to work for the government—and probably more than once,” said Waterman, who advises a straightforward defense strategy:

  • Hang up. Whether you recognize the number on the caller ID or not, immediately end any call from someone you don’t know.
  • Delete. Even if the sender’s address appears to be from a government agency, don’t open it. Instead, send it directly to your Trash folder.
  • Ignore. If you receive a text or direct message on social media from the IRS, SSA, Medicare, FTC, or other government account, don’t reply.

“Don’t worry about being rude,” Waterman said. “It’s never wrong to err on the side of abundant caution. You are looking after your own best interests.”

If you’re concerned that a government agency is legitimately trying to reach you, be proactive. Look up the agency’s contact information yourself (go to their official website; don’t rely on your caller ID or an email you received) and get in touch that way.

What should I do if I’ve been scammed by a government imposter?

First, take a deep breath, Waterman said.

“It’s natural to feel embarrassed, but don’t beat yourself up,” she said. “Remember, these scams work for a very good reason: they are entirely believable.”

So believable, in fact, that that 2.4 million people contacted the FTC to report fraud in 2022—and the majority of those reports involved imposter scams.6 If you’ve been scammed, you definitely are not alone. And the criminals’ behavior is not your fault.

Report what happened. You may call the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-831) or alert the FTC online or by phone at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357).

Finally, if criminals got their hands on your personal information, your money, or both, the FTC offers step-by-step advice on what to do.

The bottom line on government imposter scams

Government impersonator scams are remarkably common and on the rise. While no one is immune to these sophisticated schemes, there are practical steps you can take to protect yourself from fraud.

The easiest, advised NCOA’s Waterman, is to maintain a healthy level of skepticism anytime an unknown person calls you, emails you, or texts you. “Even if they seem official, use official-sounding terms, or tell you that you’ll lose your benefits or go to jail, they almost certainly are not who they’re pretending to be. Hang up the phone, delete the email, ignore the text. If the IRS, Social Security Administration, Medicare, or other government agency needs you, they’ll send a letter.”

Suspect an imposter scam? Report it to the FTC.