Personal finance

As Social Security official warns of A.I. fraud risks, one expert says criminal activity is ‘here right now’

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While scrolling social media, you may find a video of President Joe Biden urging you to sign up for extra Social Security benefits for which you are eligible.

While the hypothetical video may seem real, the promise of extra benefits is not.

It’s one example of the ways in which artificial intelligence may prey upon Social Security beneficiaries, according to Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention at AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.

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An unexpected communication can put anyone in a heightened state of emotion — and make them more susceptible to falling for such a scheme, she said.

If you divulge your personal information, you may be putting it in the hands of criminals who may redirect your monthly Social Security benefits to another account that is not yours.

“We’re in this world where everything looks legitimate, but we can’t trust anything,” Stokes said.

A.I. fraud ‘easier and faster to execute’

Artificial intelligence is generated by machines or software. Examples include ChatGPT, a chatbot enabled to have human-like conversations; deep fakes, phony audio or video made in someone’s likeness; and generative A.I., which can create text or other media responses.

A.I. “will impact society in ways the public and private sectors are just beginning to understand,” Gail Ennis, inspector general at the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, wrote in a July letter to the agency.

Yet it’s “imperative” to recognize the technology’s potential risks, according to Ennis.

“The OIG understands criminals will use A.I. to make fraudulent schemes easier and faster to execute, the deceptions more credible and realistic, and the fraud more profitable,” Ennis wrote.

The OIG has established an internal task force to study A.I. The goal is to determine the resources needed to prevent A.I.-related fraud, as well as to find out how to best use A.I. in the agency’s oversight efforts.

The new initiative is already behind the curve, according to Haywood Talcove, CEO of the government business of LexisNexis Risk Solutions.

“You don’t have years, months or weeks to study this, because it is here right now,” Talcove said. “The criminals post pandemic are focused on government payments.”

There are several reasons for that, Talcove said. For example, it’s easy, there’s “virtually zero” probability of getting caught and the government never runs out of money.

What’s more, criminals are following government agencies as closely as beneficiaries, he said, by checking their web pages, reading blogs and generally trying to find as many vulnerabilities as possible.

You don’t have years, months or weeks to study this, because it is here right now.
Haywood Talcove
CEO of the government business of LexisNexis Risk Solutions

Social Security has long been susceptible to identity fraud and theft of benefits, noted Maria Freese, senior legislative representative at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

A.I. fraud is the modern version of people having their checks stolen from their mailboxes every month, she said.

For the Social Security Administration, working to combat the new threats will pose a unique challenge after the agency has been underfunded for decades, Freese said.

“It’s going to have to be expensive and it’s going to have to be an ongoing effort,” Freese said. “They need money to be able to deal with it.”

3 features may be found in some 85% of scams

Boonchai Wedmakawand | Moment | Getty Images

Consumers should be on high alert for signs of fraud, AARP’s Stokes said.

That includes particularly watching for communication that comes out of the blue, puts you in a heightened emotional state and involves urgency, she said.

“Those three things together are what is the sign of probably 85% of scams,” Stokes said.

It’s also important to recognize that anyone — young or old — may easily fall for these sophisticated schemes, she said.

“When we’re in that heightened emotional space in our brains, it’s really hard to access logical thinking,” Stokes said.

Other steps can also help protect your personal financial information and Social Security beneficiaries’ monthly income, according to Talcove.

First, be sure to trace your credit at all three credit bureaus. Better yet, lock your credit so it is not accessible, Talcove said.

“One of the assumptions you can always make is your information has already been stolen,” Talcove said.

Next, Social Security beneficiaries should notify the agency to contact them if the information tied to the bank account where their benefits are deposited changes, he said.

Additionally, everyone should change their their online Social Security password every month.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be elderly and have to try to get through that system if my benefits were stolen,” Talcove said.

“It’s going to be the silent giant unless we address it,” he said of potential criminal activity that can take place.

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