This year, Americans will be asked to participate in the 2020 census, a process that occurs every 10 years. While you should expect to be contacted by the U.S. Census Bureau in the coming weeks (and maybe you already have), it’s also a time to watch out for scammers pretending to represent the census.
“The Census Bureau will be contacting Americans in a variety of ways, including phone calls, letters and even Census Bureau workers who will come to your home,” said Steven Weisman, a lawyer, professor, author and expert in identity theft and cybersecurity. And as a part of the census, you will be asked for certain types of personal information.
“That makes the census a perfect vehicle for identity thieves to pose as census workers in an effort to lure you into providing personal information that will be used to make you a victim of identity theft,” said Weisman.
In a recent example, 92-year-old Dallas resident Robert Cooper received an authentic-looking census package in the mail in December. The form asked for personal details, such as age, education and who else lived with him. It also asked for his and his wife’s Medicare numbers, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Believing he was responding to official census mail, Cooper provided those numbers and mailed back the form. Unfortunately, he fell victim to a scam.
“Since it is mandatory for all households to participate in the census and since the census collects very detailed and sensitive personal information, it makes for quite an attractive target for scammers to take advantage of,” said Attila Tomaschek, a data privacy expert with ProPrivacy.com. The good news, he said, is that if you know what to look out for, you can significantly reduce your chances of becoming a victim and having your sensitive information or identity stolen.
1. Census Mail Scams
Because the Census Bureau’s first contact is usually through the mail, scammers will try and beat them to the punch and send out faux census documents to unsuspecting recipients.
You may receive false census documents meant to coax personal information from you, as Cooper did. Similarly, you could receive forms that are designed to look like official census mail, but are intended to confuse you and lead to inaccurate census counts. For example, Republicans were caught last month sending out mailers titled “2020 Congressional District Census,” in envelopes labeled “Do not destroy, official document,” which mirrored the look of the official census form. However, these forms were not related to the census at all.
And though there’s plenty of paper-based fraud going on, criminals are also taking mail scams high-tech.
One trick for collecting personal information through the mail is sending postcards with a QR code and asking recipients to scan the code with their smartphones in order to access the census survey on a webpage, according to Rachel Willson, investigative coordinator in client relations for The Smith Investigation Agency. When the code is scanned, it loads malware onto the recipient’s device.
One easy way to tell if your census mail is a scam? The return address is for a city other than Jeffersonville, Indiana, where all official census forms are mailed, according to Census.gov.
2. Door-To-Door Census Scams
If you don’t fill out a form or self-report your census information by web, phone or mail, a census taker will come to your door to interview you some time in the next couple of months. If you aren’t around, they’ll come back a few times, or they may resort to asking neighbors for information about your household. This is all perfectly normal and legal.
However, you should be wary of answering the door for anyone you don’t know. That person could be a scammer posing as an official census taker.
“If someone knocks on your door claiming to be a census taker, ask them to present their official Census Bureau-issued photo ID to ensure they are legitimate,” Tomaschek said. That ID will include a Department of Commerce watermark and expiration date.
“You can then verify the agent’s name in the Census Bureau’s staff directory online,” Tomaschek said. If the person at your door can’t produce a valid ID or isn’t listed in the directory, they are likely a scammer and should be turned away and reported.
The Census Bureau urges people with suspicions to call 844-330-2020, and to contact local police if they learn a home visitor doesn’t work for the census.
3. Census Phone Scams
Another way scammers may try to extract personal information from you is by calling and asking you to report your household information over the phone (as well as sensitive data that the actual census would never ask for).
One of the ways scammers trick you into thinking you’re talking with an official representative of the U.S. Census Bureau is through call spoofing. This involves manipulating Caller ID so that your phone displays the call as coming from the census, when it’s really a robocaller or other kind of scammer.
The Census Bureau does sometimes initiate phone calls to people in order to collect census data, but you can always independently verify that you’re talking to a real census rep. “You can call the Census Bureau’s National Processing Center to confirm the identity of the census agent. If the caller cannot be identified, do not under any circumstances provide the caller with any information” Tomaschek said.
4. Online Census Scams
When it comes to scams, the web is the Wild West. There are a multitude of ways criminals can trick you into sharing personal information ― even when you think you are not.
Phishing emails, for example, have long been a tool used by scammers to collect personal information or install malware on the user’s device. The census is no exception; a popular phishing tactic for census scammers is sending an email requesting that you take a survey. However, the Census Bureau will never contact you via email to complete a survey.
“If you do receive an unsolicited email purporting to be from the Census Bureau and requesting you to complete a survey, you can bet that you’re dealing with a scam artist,” Tomaschek said. The best thing to do in such a case is to delete the email.
“By no means should you click on any links or download any attachments in the email. The links will undoubtedly lead to a phishing site designed to harvest your personal information and any attachments will likely contain malware,” Tomaschek said.
Social media is another place online where census scams can pop up. Earlier this month, for instance, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign ran a series of Facebook ads directing users to fill out the “Official 2020 Congressional District Census.” Those ads did not link to the official census form, however, and instead sent users to a Trump campaign website. People were prompted to submit personal information and donate to the campaign.
If you are directed to the Census Bureau website from an email, social media post or another website, always check the web address to verify that you are indeed on https://www.census.gov/. There should also be a padlock icon in the address bar, which indicates that the site is secure.
“If the web address doesn’t end in ‘.gov’ and if the address doesn’t start with ‘https’ or the padlock icon doesn’t appear in the address bar, regardless of how official it may appear to be, you’re likely dealing with a census scam website designed to harvest your data and steal your information,” Tomaschek said. If you end up on a site like this, leave immediately.
5. Census Job Scams
Finally, if you’re job hunting, keep an eye out for scams related to census jobs. Scammers are posting job applications for people interested in temporary positions with the Census Bureau.
“As with so many scams, this scam exploits a kernel of truth, which is that the Census Bureau is looking for people to fill thousands of temporary positions,” Weisman said. “However, the scammers are using this as an opportunity to make you a victim of identity theft or steal your money.”
In one version of these scams, you might be asked to pay an application fee in order to apply for a job. “The truth is that no federal agency, including the Census Bureau, charges an application fee,” Weisman said.
Other census job scams ask you for your bank account information in order to set up a direct deposit for your wages, only to use that information to steal directly from your bank account. Or you may be asked for your Social Security number for purposes of tax withholding. Although legitimate employers need this information, it’s not required until well into the hiring process, after you’ve spoken with other employees in person.
“In order to make sure that you are actually applying for a real job with the Census Bureau, you should go exclusively to the Census Bureau’s official website and job application page,” Weisman said.
Spotting A Scam: What The Census Bureau Will And Won’t Do
It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the census process so you understand how and when you’ll be contacted. “Knowing the means by which the Census Bureau does and does not collect information is ultimately the key to being able to spot ― and evade ― a potential census scam,” Tomaschek said.
Regardless of how you’re contacted by the Census Bureau, however, there are a few pieces of information the census will never ask for.
First, the Census Bureau will never ask you to provide financial details such as your credit card numbers, Social Security number, bank account numbers, banking passwords or your mother’s maiden name.
Though participating in the census is important and technically mandatory, you can’t be fined or jailed for not completing your census survey. “If someone claiming to be a census agent requests such information from you and/or threatens you with fines or jail time for not complying, you will know that you are dealing with a scammer,” Tomaschek said.
Finally, scammers posing as census agents will also often ask for money or “donations” to a particular organization or political party. “Know that the Census Bureau will never request money or donations in any form, so if someone posing as a census agent asks for money, ignore the scammer and refuse the request,” Tomaschek said.