Figuring out Social Security and Medicare taxes and benefits can be confusing for taxpayers, and increasingly, taxpayers are turning online and to professionals for help. Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration (SSA) warns, some taxpayers seeking information are also being taken advantage of by thieves and scammers. Here’s what you need to know.
First, there is a law which bars individuals or nongovernment businesses from using words or emblems that mislead others. That includes advertising that might lead people to believe that they represent, are somehow affiliated with, or endorsed or approved by Social Security or the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (Medicare).
How can you tell the difference between scammers and the real thing? According to the SSA, some scammers will offer Social Security services for a fee, even though the same services are available directly from Social Security free of charge. These services include getting:
- A corrected Social Security card showing a person’s married name;
- A Social Security card to replace a lost card;
- A Social Security Statement; and
- A Social Security number for a child.
(For more on replacement cards, click here.)
A quick word of explanation is warranted. While these services may be free from the government, there may be legitimate associated expenses, including time and postage. There is something to be said for expertise, as well as time saved from someone who has experience. A company such as a law firm or accounting firm that might assist you with obtaining a replacement card should be paid for their services, just as a tax pro may charge a fee to file an extension for you—even though there is no cost from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to file for an extension. The difference is that there should be no charge for the underlying thing—for example, the replacement card—and it should be made clear to you that you could obtain the card on your own for free. Also, any additional fees should be clearly stated.
How can you protect yourself? Don’t be fooled by anyone claiming to work with or for Social Security or Medicare as a separate, private business. Don’t be mislead by ads claiming that professionals can get you better or faster results if you use their services (for example, a company that purports to get you a replacement card on an expedited basis). And don’t pay for services that should be free. If you’re not sure what you’re paying for, ask for a breakdown of the fees upfront.
Social Security also suggests that if you receive misleading information, you should send the complete ad, including the envelope, to: Office of the Inspector General Fraud Hotline, Social Security Administration, P.O. Box 17768, Baltimore, MD 21235.