How to identify census-based scams
Alison Southwick, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau, sent me a press release informing me of a census-related scam involving crooks going through neighborhoods with forms and asking for people's Social Security numbers (which is a question that is not on the real census form). So I hopped on the phone to get her take on the scam, and here's what she told me.
Odds are, the census form you receive in the mail will be real. After all, everyone in the country is supposed to get one, while the con artists can't cover close to similar ground. So this post isn't meant to alarm anyone, just inform. Your census form, whenever it arrives via the U.S. Postal Service, is probably genuine.
It's important to be aware of the red flags to watch out for, in the unlikely event that it isn't real. As already noted, if the census form asks you for your Social Security number, rip it up. "We have heard of people going door-to-door with census lookalike forms," says Southwick, "and on those forms, they ask for your Social Security number." If that happens, that's a fake.
Of course, there's a wrinkle.There's at least one legitimate, census-issued survey, says Southwick, that will ask you for the last four digits of your Social Security number. But again, it'll never ask you for the whole thing. "One thing I've learned with the census," says Southwick, "is that there are no hard and fast rules. For instance, you might get the 10-question form and send it off and still get a knock on your door from a census worker, simply because they're spot checking their system."
Wait, there's more than one census survey? Yep. Actually , there are more than a dozen of them, and that can cause confusion, too, making it even more likely that someone would think they're being scammed by a fake census form when they're actually looking at the real thing. Names of some of the genuine surveys include "The American Housing Survey," the "Current Population Survey," the "Housing Vacancy Survey' and the "National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation." A more detailed, although apparently not complete, list can be found at the Census Bureau's web site.
And one census survey is very, very long. Two and a half percent of the population will receive a 69-question form with more detailed questions. It's called the American Community Survey. Legally, if it's sent to you, you're required to fill it out just as you are any census form. Still, as personal as these 69 questions may seem, not one of them asks you for your full Social Security number, your checking account information or where you hide your spare house key. If the form you receive does, then, by golly, you're being scammed.
But wait! There's more. According to the Census Bureau's own Web site, there are a few other ways someone might attempt to scam you.
- You're being conned if your census form asks you for any money, including donations.
- If you received a request on behalf of a political party, that's not the Census Bureau's doing.
- If you get an e-mail from the Census, that could be legitimate, but if the email asks you to complete the census online for any reason, that's a scam.
If they ask you for any other financial information, like your PIN code, your password or some other information people could use to access your credit cards or financial accounts, then, yes, you're being targeted by crooks.
If someone shows up at your doorstep, claiming to be a census worker, the Census Bureau advises that you ask them to show you their valid Census ID badge. But since you might not know what a valid Census ID badge looks like (I'll raise my hand on this one), it might be best to follow the Bureau's other advice and tell the person that you'd first like to contact your regional census office and see if there's a door-to-door survey going on in your neighborhood.
If you're suspicious of an e-mail or Web site, you can email the URL to ITSO.Fraud.Reporting@census.gov
And if you're weirded out by some census form you've received in the mail because it doesn't look quite right, then you should contact the United States Postal Inspection Service.
Chances are good, however, that the 2010 Census form that shows up in your mailbox or the census worker who appears on your doorstep -- totally authentic.
Geoff Williams is a frequent WalletPop contributor and the co-author of the new book Living Well with Bad Credit.