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Legal, Regulatory, and Privacy Issues

It’s U.S. Census time again. Here’s how to avoid getting scammed

Fraudsters use phishing emails, phony calls and other tricks to steal Americans' personal data during the decennial head count

Summary

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the number of people who live across the country. And every 10 years, crooks count on some of those people falling for Census scams. Therefore, you should gear up to protect yourself – and your personal data – in advance of this year’s head count.

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Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the number of people who live across the country.

And every 10 years, crooks count on some of those people falling for Census scams.

Therefore, you should gear up to protect yourself – and your personal data – in advance of the 2020 Census.

“We encourage a healthy dose of skepticism to make sure you’re not being hoodwinked,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center.

When does the 2020 Census start and end?

Preparations for the next Census are well underway. By April 2020, every home in the U.S. will receive a mailed or hand-delivered invitation to participate in the 2020 Census. Households can respond online, by phone or by mail.

A month later, in May 2020, Census takers will visit homes that haven’t responded. The 2020 head count is scheduled to wrap up by next December.

See related: Identity theft in 2020: What you need to know about common techniques

How to detect Census scams

During the Census, some scammers will pose as federal employees, carrying out online, over-the-phone or in-person schemes to collect credit card numbers, bank account numbers, your Social Security number (to open accounts in your name), your mother’s maiden name (the answer to a common website security question) or even cash.

The Census Bureau notes that its workers, including Census takers, never ask for this type of personal data or for money.

But if crooks obtain that information, they’ll use it to immediately rip you off or to eventually steal your identity, Velasquez says.

“If anyone asks for this information, it could be a red flag. Treat your personal information like you treat cash. Guard it with care,” says Phylissia Clark, vice president of public relations and communications at the Better Business Bureau in Dallas.

Clark adds that the Census Bureau does ask personal questions during the Census to find out, for instance, how many people live in your home, how old each person is and whether you own or rent your home. But legitimate inquiries won’t involve supplying details about your credit card accounts, bank accounts or other financially sensitive matters.

Clark says the frequency of so-called “government impostor scams” rises when major events such as the Census, elections or tax season are going on. Velasquez says similar scams have popped up during sign-ups for health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“Scammers know that people will be expecting to hear from the government and will leverage your willingness to let your guard down. BBB believes that scammers will use Census surveys as an opportunity to ask for – and steal – your personal information,” Clark says.

In 2018, BBB logged nearly 5,000 reports of government impostor scams through its BBB Scam Tracker, the nonprofit’s free online tool for reporting scams, according to Clark. Although all of those reports weren’t census-related, this type of scam – pretending to be a government worker – is “very common,” she says.

Every adult is vulnerable to Census fraud, she says, because this kind of scam relies on commonplace email, phone and in-person communication.

“Also, because everyone is expected to fill out Census materials, the scammers don’t have a particular victim profile, making this scam unique. Anyone and everyone who would be likely to fill out Census information could be at risk,” Clark says.

Justin Lavelle, communications director for BeenVerified.com, which supplies public data for background checks, stresses that scammers likely will target vulnerable groups such as senior citizens, disabled people and new immigrants during the 2020 Census.

For instance, he says, Census scam artists might exploit the deportation anxieties of undocumented immigrants by asking about their citizenship status to stoke fear, and then urging the frightened immigrants to surrender sensitive data about their personal finances.

Lavelle notes that contrary to rumors, the Census Bureau won’t inquire about citizenship status during the 2020 Census.

What follows are tips for avoiding scams related to the 2020 Census, courtesy of the Census Bureau, Federal Trade Commission, BBB and Identity Theft Resource Center.

See related: Scammers splice skimming with spoofing to steal your credit card information

How to avoid Census scams

Email scams

Email will be a key tool for Census scammers to seek your personal information, such as a credit card number.

This is done primarily through what’s known as “phishing.” As explained by the Census Bureau, phishing emails – under the guise of coming from a trusted entity like a federal agency – go fishing for usernames, passwords, Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and credit card numbers. A phishing email often forwards you to a fake website that appears to be real but is infected with data-stealing malware.

If you receive an email that appears to be from the Census Bureau but you suspect it’s phony, don’t reply to it, don’t click on any of the links within it and don’t open any attachments, Clark advises. Forward the suspicious email to the Census Bureau at ois.fraud.reporting@census.gov and report it to the BBB Scam Tracker. After that, delete the email.

At-home scams

If someone visits your home to collect information for the 2020 Census, you can verify their identity by asking to see their ID badge. The badge should include the person’s name and photo, along with a U.S. Department of Commerce seal and expiration date.

“If you aren’t home or can’t come to the door, the [Census] taker will come back up to six times. Each time, they’ll leave a door hanger with a phone number so you can call to schedule a visit,” the Federal Trade Commission says.

You also can verify an employee’s identity by visiting the “staff search” database on the Census Bureau website. Or, at your request, a census taker is supposed to provide a supervisor’s contact information or the phone number of the regional Census office.

If a visitor resists furnishing basic information about themselves and hassles you about handing over your sensitive financial data, you’re almost assuredly dealing with a scammer, according to Velasquez. If you find yourself in a hostile situation like that, she suggests contacting the Identity Theft Resource Center at (888) 400-5530.

Call the Census Bureau at (800) 923-8282 if you still doubt the visitor’s identity once you’ve checked their ID. If you learn that they don’t work for the Census Bureau, contact your local law enforcement agency.

Phone scams

If someone calls your home and says they represent the Census Bureau, contact the bureau to verify that the caller is actually one of the agency’s employees, Clark recommends. The verification phone numbers are:

  • (800) 523-3205
  • (800) 642-0469
  • (800) 923-8282

Most Census Bureau calls to your home will originate from the agency’s contact centers in Jeffersonville, Indiana (812-218-3144) and Tucson, Arizona (520-798-4152).

Don’t automatically trust a call from an area code in the Washington, D.C., metro area, where the Census Bureau and many other federal agencies are based. (The Census Bureau’s main office is in the D.C. region’s 240 area code).

“Number spoofing has made it extremely easy for scam callers to impersonate government officials and use numbers from authentic area codes like 202, the D.C. area code,” Lavelle says.

See related: How to reduce your fear of cybercrime, and protect yourself

Mail scams

Did a survey or letter from the Census Bureau show up in your mailbox? If so, you can determine whether it’s legitimate by seeing if:

  • The U.S. Department of Commerce is part of the return address. This is the Census Bureau’s parent agency.
  • Jeffersonville, Indiana, is included in the return address. Most Census-related materials are mailed from the bureau’s National Processing Center at 1201 E. 10th St. in Jeffersonville.

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