As the Census Advances, So Does Potential for Fraud

Census workers, here pictured in training, are canvassing the nation to collect information from residents who didn't mail back their forms on time.
Census workers, here pictured in training, are canvassing the nation to collect information from residents who didn't mail back their forms on time.

As the U.S. Census Bureau works to compile information about households and businesses this year, swindlers are also working to get that information -- and they are taking advantage of the census to do it. In spite of the warnings we've been hearing for more than a year now, it's still happening.

And now that the census is moving into its second phase, in which hundreds of thousands of temporary workers travel door to door to follow up at addresses where residents didn't respond to mailed-in questionnaires, the opportunities for fraud could grow.

For months, the Bureau's publicity campaign has been preparing people and organizations not only for the census, but the for possibility of census-related fraud. "Please note that the [census] form is not available online," says a video produced by the Bureau, "and do not fill out any form that claims it is the 2010 Census questionnaire sent to you via e-mail or that you are directed to on the internet; it will be a scam."

Ohio-based Safeguard Properties Inc., which maintains defaulted and foreclosed properties for its mortgage industry clients, has reportedly received 2,500 calls from people identifying themselves as Census Bureau employees and asking for a wide variety of data on the vacant real estate. The company has since created an 800 number specifically for Census workers, in an attempt to short-circuit potential swindlers. "We cannot just give that information to anybody that calls," company founder and Chairman Robert Klein told American Banker.

How to Know Who's Knocking

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72-percent of American households mailed back their 2010 census forms this past March and April, and the followup for those that didn't respond will take place until about mid-July. The Bureau has doled out advice on how the public can be sure the person knocking on their door is indeed a certified census taker. Census workers never solicit donations, contact households through e-mail, or ask for Social Security or credit card numbers.

But in some cases, even real census workers have brought trouble, even though they have to pass background checks and undergo four days of training. Police in an Atlanta suburb recently arrested a census worker after finding marijuana and prescription pills in his car during a traffic stop. A convicted sex offender slipped through the screening process in New Jersey and is facing federal charges after he was discovered working as a census worker under an alias.

Still, the more educated the public is about the census, the less likely it is that fraud will take place, experts say. "No matter how well-trained my census taker is...that's not going to protect someone from...the villain who's posing as one of those guys, " says Professor Doug Allen, director of global business programs at the University of Denver's Daniels School of Business. "But then, on the other side, we have to be sure that we train [census workers] to live up to that expectation. The higher the expectations that we raise on the part of the public thorough our PR efforts, we're going to have to have an adequately trained army out there that's capable of living up to those expectations."

Federal law protects the confidentiality of census responses. Census workers face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for revealing "personally identifiable information."