Census Scams to be Aware of to Avoid Identity Theft

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Stephanie Faris
Writer
Brandon King
Editor
September 18, 2023
woman holding census form

Credit: Kampus Production

I remember filling out the 2020 Census. In fact, I did it pretty early. I pulled up the website, answered all the questions, and was done for the decade.

Why?

I didn’t want anyone knocking on my door.

I know that sounds very antisocial, but there’s just something suspicious about someone standing on your porch, claiming to be from the Census Bureau. I’d prefer to go straight to the source.

I wasn’t alone. In fact, only 33.1 percent of households completed the 2020 survey using door Census takers. The rest completed it online, by mail, and by phone.

Still, Census scams aren’t limited to the once-per-decade population count. In the in-between years, there are other Census activities. You may be asked to answer questions, but some of those approaching you could be scammers. 

Blank Census form

What Are Census Scams?

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau launches a nationwide effort to collect information on every household. The last one was in 2020, and the next one will be in 2030.

In the years that fall between the turn of the decade, the Census Bureau focuses on other surveys such as:

  • Economic Census: Last held in 2022, this survey looks at businesses to get a picture of the country’s financial health. This Census is taken every five years.
  • Census of Governments: State and local governments participate in this survey, which takes place in years ending in “2” or “7.”
  • American Community Survey: Every year, the Census Bureau conducts an in-depth survey as a supplement to the decennial Census. This survey goes to about one in 38 households and includes the short form used in the big Census as well as more in-depth questions.
  • Other Surveys: Occasionally, the U.S. Census conducts random surveys, such as the Household Pulse Survey conducted during the pandemic. When these take place, you can easily track down information on them online.

It’s important to pay close attention to the above timetable. Why? Because scammers assume you aren’t. They might call you up or send you a message today, telling you that you’ve been selected to answer a survey. And, with Censuses popping up every year in addition to the 10-year survey, it can be easy to think a scam is legitimate.

Census scams use the U.S. Census to trick consumers into providing sensitive data. It’s important to note that the Census Bureau will never ask for the following information:

  • Social Security numbers
  • Bank account numbers
  • Usernames and passwords

They will, however, ask for:

  • Names, gender, age, and race of you and those in your household
  • Homeownership details 
  • Your address and phone number

The American Community Survey will go into greater detail, asking for the information above, along with:

  • Home details including number of rooms, year built, and acreage
  • Internet access availability within the residence
  • Electronic device ownership
  • Automobile ownership
  • Fuel type for heating and air
  • Rent and mortgage details
  • Household Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or “food stamps” usage
  • Education, citizenship or U.S. residence status, and medical coverage of each household member
  • Employment status 
  • And, income level for each household member

The best way to avoid Census scams is to know exactly what questions the government will ask. It can also help to learn what the various census scams are so you can recognize them. 

So, what are the types of census scams? Let’s check them out.

call center woman

Credit: Yan Krukau

8 Census Survey Scams To Avoid

1. Census Taker Scams

What is it? Someone shows up at your door, claiming to be a Census worker. The person begins asking for information, often going beyond the household member information requested during an official Census. The scammer collects your information and leaves, selling it or using it to commit identity fraud.

How to spot it: Census workers always wear a badge bearing their name, photograph, and expiration date. The badge will have a Department of Commerce watermark. Census workers are required to show this identification before starting the interview. They will only visit between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time, and they’ll carry an official bag and a Census Bureau-issued electronic device, such as a laptop or smartphone, branded with the Census Bureau logo.

How to avoid it: Ask to see a worker’s badge before providing any information. Look for the electronic device with the logo, and never give details like your Social Security number or banking information. If you have questions about a worker, check the person’s name in the Census Bureau Staff Search.

2. Phone Scams

What is it? You receive a phone call from someone claiming to be a Census worker. The phone number may even match one of the official Census Bureau phone numbers since those can be spoofed. The Census taker asks questions that may or may not be part of official Census surveys, but the goal is to use the data for fraud.

How to spot it: A Census taker who contacts you by phone will always provide a full name. If you don’t answer, the worker will leave a full name and the Case ID assigned to your survey. 

How to avoid it: You can use the Census Bureau Staff Search to check for the worker’s name. You can also contact the Census Bureau’s regional office for your area to validate a caller. Even if you can validate the Census worker, never give your Social Security number or bank account number to them.

✎ Related: How to Protect Yourself From Phone Scams ➔

3. Phishing Scams

What is it? An email, text, or social media message comes through, asking you to complete a Census survey. It includes a link, and when you click over, you’re prompted to enter details. The information is then captured by a scammer.

How to spot it: While the Census Bureau does sometimes reach out through text and email, those messages follow very specific protocols. Emails will come from the @census.gov domain, and texts will identify the name of the Census taker you can then verify in the database. 

How to avoid it: Always take caution when clicking on links. Go directly to the source to input information, especially if a linked website is asking for contact details, Social Security numbers, account logins, or financial data. The Census Bureau will never ask for that information.

4. Fake Survey Scams

What is it? You receive a survey in the mail or attached to a message. The form looks legitimate, so you complete it and send it back. The information goes to a scammer rather than the U.S. government.

How to spot it: Each Census survey bears a unique ID. Fake surveys will often be missing the ID. It should also have a URL with instructions to fill out the form online.

How to avoid it: If you complete the survey online, you can go to a URL printed on the form, which will begin with the URL https://respond.census.gov/. When you go to the printed URL, you’ll be prompted for the identification number on the form. If the URL doesn’t start with that address, or there is no ID number on the form, don’t proceed.

5. Postcard Scams

QR code

Credit: Pixabay

What is it? You get a postcard in the mail, inviting you to participate in a Census survey. The card has a QR code printed on it. Simply scan the code and answer the questions. Easy as pie, right? Unfortunately, that QR code takes you to a bogus site, and any information you input is stolen.

How to spot it: The QR code is a dead giveaway. The Census doesn’t use QR codes printed on postcards to invite consumers to participate. Any correspondence from the Census will direct you to a website beginning with the URL https://respond.census.gov/. Once there, you’ll input the unique identification number printed on the paperwork.

How to avoid it: Never enter Census information into a form you’re directed to via a link or a QR code.

6. Delinquency Scams

What is it? Someone claiming to represent the Census Bureau notifies you that your response to a Census response is late. You might have even received an official-looking delinquent notice in the mail. You’re urged to respond immediately to avoid serious repercussions like jail time. The scammer uses urgent, even threatening, language to get you to take action.

How to spot it: Participation in Census activities is required by law. Failure to comply could result in fines, but no one has ever been prosecuted. The language is mostly used today to let taxpayers know that responding to the census is not voluntary. If someone tells you that you could face jail time, it’s a sure sign it’s a scam.

How to avoid it: Question any threats of imprisonment for failure to comply with the Census. If you have an outstanding Census request, follow the original mailing to complete it.

7. Donations Scams

donation box

Credit: cottonbro studio

What is it? In-person scams aren’t limited to identity theft. In some cases, scammers ask for donations or some form of payment. The Census “costs” money, they say. But the scammer pockets any cash you hand over, as well as taking any information you provide.

How to spot it: As with other in-person scams, in this case, the person may not wear the ID badge required of all Census workers. Whether someone has the badge or not, though, asking for money is always a sign of fraud. The Census is paid for out of taxpayer dollars, not donations.

How to avoid it: If someone shows up at your door, claiming to be with the U.S. Census, take a look at that person’s badge. Check the first and last name using the Census Bureau Staff Search.

8. Census Job Posting Scams

What is it? While searching job boards, you come across a high-paying job with the Census Bureau. It sounds like a great deal. You meet the qualifications. You complete the application, but at some point, the hirer requests your Social Security number or banking details. You might even be asked to pay for training or equipment. Once you’ve jumped through all those hoops, nobody ever gets back to you about the job.

How to spot it: The Census Bureau does often have a need for workers, particularly during the big decennial survey. Those jobs are advertised on the U.S. Census Bureau website, so they can always be cross-referenced. All training and equipment is provided by the government, so if someone is asking for money, it’s a scam.

How to avoid it: If you’re interested in a job with the U.S. Census Bureau, visit the career page and follow the links to apply. You can always call your regional office and ask about a Census job opportunity that seems suspicious.

Protecting Yourself from Census Scams

Census scams can happen whether it’s a decennial Census year or not. Here are some things you can do to reduce your risk of getting caught up in a scam.

1. Be proactive

During the 2020 Census, it was all over the news – the Census was coming. As soon as I got the chance, I went to the U.S. Census site and completed it for my household. 

Taking care of things right away can be a big help. If someone shows up at your door or calls you, you’ll know you already completed it.

2. Never click on links

Whether it’s from the Census Bureau or anyone else, links in messages should always be treated with caution. Even if you see the URL and it looks legitimate, copy the URL and paste it into the address bar rather than clicking.

Also remember, if you’re invited to complete a Census survey, you’ll be assigned an ID. You’ll go to a URL that begins https://respond.census.gov/ and input that ID to get to the survey.

If you receive a scam email, forward it to ois.fraud.reporting@census.gov

3. Verify IDs

Every Census Bureau employee is logged in the Census Bureau Staff directory. You can enter a name or phone number and verify someone’s identity in a matter of minutes.

But if you’ve checked the staff directory and still are unsure, you can always contact your regional office and make sure the person is legit. If someone is at your front door, that person should be wearing an official ID badge and carrying equipment branded with the Department of Commerce logo.

4. Note contact information

Any email message will come from the @census.gov domain. Reference phone numbers listed on the Census site’s contact page.

That said, keep in mind that email addresses and phone numbers can be faked.

You can always call the National Processing Center at 800-523-3205, 800-642-0469, or 800-877-8339 (TDD/TTY) to make sure a call, message, or in-person visit is legit.

5. Be stingy with information

The Census seeks information on the demographics of the U.S. They want to know who lives in your house in order to get statistical data on the makeup of the country.

Although the American Community Survey can be quite detailed, no survey conducted by the Census Bureau will request your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, usernames and passwords, or financial details.

That said, some surveys, including the American Community Survey, will ask questions about your income and any assistant programs you use. You can still give that information without including banking details.

If the Census taker asks questions that make you uncomfortable, decline to answer then reach out to the National Processing Center or your regional office and let them know what happened. You can also find samples of various surveys on the Census Bureau’s website.

6. Never pay

There are plenty of charities, all too eager to collect your donations.

The U.S. Census Bureau isn’t one of them.

If someone asks you for money for the Census, they’re scamming people. Also, pick up the phone and call your regional center to let them know someone is claiming to collect money on their behalf.

What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed

You may be reading this because you fear you’ve already been scammed.

If so, don’t panic. There are things you can do to reduce the damage a scammer can cause.

1. Contact your bank

Is there a chance the scammer could access your bank account?

If so, your bank should be your first call. They can help prevent access to your account by the scammer. It might mean changing your account number or canceling a credit card, but it’s well worth it if it keeps your money safe.

2. Consider identity theft protection

Now might be a great time to consider identity theft protection.

Having your identity stolen can be expensive and stressful. You’ll spend hours trying to straighten out the mess the scammer created.

Identity theft protection will help cover the cost of cleaning up after identity theft hits your credit report and accounts. Simply having it in place can help you feel a little safer.

Great identity theft services include Aura, IDShield, and others. 

3. Contact the Social Security Administration

Having your Social Security number compromised can be risky.

Someone could take out a loan in your name, set up utilities, open a bank account as you, and more. The result could be financial loss and long-term damage to your credit score.

If you think your Social Security number could be floating around out there, have the Social Security Administration block access to your number. You can do this by calling 1-800-772-1213. Also consider freezing your credit to keep anyone from applying for a bank account, loan, or credit card in your name.

4. Report it

Fraud should be reported. Even if the scam attempt failed, you can potentially save someone else by reaching out to the proper authorities.

The best place to start is with the Census Bureau. Fraudulent emails can be forwarded to ois.fraud.reporting@census.gov for investigation. Your regional office can take a report of any in-person or phone fraud.

In some cases, it might be wise to file a police report. This is particularly true if the scammer is going door to door in local neighborhoods. Authorities will likely want to investigate, but even if they don’t, you’ll have a record of the incident.

Lastly, the FTC investigates all types of fraud. You can file a report at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/#/

The Census is an important process, and it’s important to do your part. In recent years, however, scammers have complicated things, burdening taxpayers to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. By being aware of the various census scams, you can keep your identity safe and avoid losing money to fraudsters.

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