For all the times I sit down at my computer with only an inkling of what this week’s post will be about, the universe always seems to hand me a story. Here’s what happened Monday morning . . .
Back in early April, I applied for my Social Security retirement benefits. I was to reach full retirement age at 66 a few weeks later, so it was high time to file. With the pandemic crashing life as we know it, I assumed it would take extra time for my claim to process, so I waited. And waited. And waited.
Around the end of April, I received two emails, sent within seconds of each other in the wee hours of the morning, informing me that there was a question about my claim. According to one of the emails, I had worked in a town called Reading and had a pension while employed there. The other didn’t mention the town, just the issue of a pension, which called my benefits into question. Both referred me to a Mr. Moore at the Social Security Administration and told me to call. Each email gave a different deadline in May, by which time I needed to respond or my benefits would be reduced.
I was immediately suspicious, not only because of the conflicting deadlines, but also because (a) I never worked in or for the town of Reading, Massachusetts, and (b) there are a lot of other towns named Reading across the country—and the state was not specified. My concern was amplified by the fact that the emails were “signed” as “Social Security Administration” (not by the mysterious Mr. Moore) using a typeface called Brush Script, which is a very dated style popular in 1950s advertisements. What government agency would use that typeface as its signature in an official email?
So, I did what any Internet savvy consumer would do, and I googled the phone number that I was supposed to use to contact Mr. Moore. Sure enough, there were a slew of reports that this number was a scam. There were other reports that it was legit. I checked the SSA website and found notices of many scams currently active, including some associated with COVID-19. I decided this was probably a way for the scammer to try to get my phone number, so I trashed the emails and wrote a complaint to the SSA Inspector General’s Office.
Meanwhile, my benefits application was still pending in my SSA online account. I planned to call this week to find out what was going on. Then Al brought in the mail on Monday. “Here may be the answer to your question about your benefits,” he said, handing me an official-looking envelope from the SSA. I opened it and was dismayed to find a hard copy of the exact same Mr. Moore letter, with the same Brush Script signature, a vague reference to a pension issue, and a new deadline of June 13. As had the previous emails, it included numbers for our local SSA office and the national office, too.
Not trusting anything, I looked up our local office online. The numbers matched. I called, and to my astonishment, was connected to a real human being within minutes. And, she confirmed that Mr. Moore was, indeed, real, there was a question about a pension from work in Reading, Mass., and I really needed to get in touch with him or my claim would be closed. I was so confused that I was beginning to wonder if this woman really worked for the SSA, whether I had somehow earned a pension in the past, and if I was at risk of giving up confidential information during the call.
But she was quite patient and even tried to connect me to Mr. Moore directly. As it turned out, he had picked up another call while I was on hold, so she said to call the number I’d previously assumed was suspect. I left a message for him and went down to our basement file cabinet to find the only information I could imagine had anything to do with this, my severance arrangement when I was laid off 10 years ago. I had paid into a retirement plan, but received the balance when my job ended and reinvested it.
Soon enough, Mr. Moore called back. He turned out to be a most pleasant guy, quite calm and understanding. The mistake had been his, to use the wrong town instead of my former employer, but only because they have been swamped since the pandemic struck and he’s been struggling to push out all the paperwork for many, many benefit claims. He took a closer look at my case and realized that the type of retirement plan I’d paid into was not an issue, immediately approved my claim, took care of tax withholding, told me what amount to expect, and said there was a good chance I’d get my first check by week’s end.
When I told him about the scam information I’d found online, he was quite familiar with it and said that there had been many attempts by Russian hackers to get into their system (none successful—sure hope he’s right), and that the phone number I’d found suspicious but had now used to reach him has sometimes even come up in Google searches as a Russian business. More evidence of trying to throw us into confusion and mistrust of government institutions. I thanked him for his help and wished him well. (I did not mention the typeface.) After I hung up, I checked my online account and saw that, indeed, my benefits had been approved.
We live in a time of deep distrust. So much that we’ve relied on to anchor our lives is now uncertain. The Internet is rife with 21st century snake oil peddlers, thieves, and propagandists. Conspiracy theories are tearing our country apart.
It’s essential to be vigilant. It’s also essential to do all your homework. I could have called the national SSA number right away, or our local office, verified or reported the emails I received, and resolved all of this much sooner.
Several weeks ago, I seriously considered writing a blog post about what I thought was a scam, as a warning. Today my message is different. Today my hope, Dear Reader, is that you will not let cynicism and skepticism keep you from getting the information and help you truly need. Let due diligence, not fear and suspicion, be your guide. Now, more than ever.
Image: Jamie Street