April 1, 2020 is Census Day — the due date for Americans to take part in the decennial national headcount. Until then, and possibly beyond, you’ll probably hear a lot about, and a lot from, the U.S. Census Bureau. But census activity isn’t limited to years ending in 0, and neither is census fraud.
Census scammers contact you by phone, email, regular mail or home visit, or direct you to phony websites, seeking personal and financial information. Like other government impostors, they adopt the mantle of officialdom in hopes of winning your trust — and they have the added advantage of pretending to represent an agency specifically tasked with asking questions. Along with its once-a-decade population count, the Census Bureau conducts more than 130 surveys each year.
The biggest, the American Community Survey (ACS), is sent annually to more than 3.5 million randomly selected homes to gather population, economic, housing and other data that helps determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in state and federal money is distributed. With its detailed questions about things like income, assets, job status, household amenities, even your commute, the ACS does set off scam suspicions — it’s a frequent subject of calls to AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline — but it is legitimate, and relatively easy to verify (see below).
There are some things no genuine census survey or agent will ask — for example, for your Social Security, credit card or bank account number. They won’t ask for money. They won’t threaten jail time if you don’t answer their questions. Any of these is a sure sign that a supposed census taker is phishing for ways to steal your identity, money or possessions.
You get an unsolicited email purporting to be from the Census Bureau. For household surveys and the decennial Census, the agency almost always makes contact by mail.
A supposed census agent asks you for money or financial data, such as the number of and amount in your bank account.
A supposed census taker threatens you with arrest. Taking part in the Census is required by law, and you can be fined for not doing so, but you can’t be imprisoned.
Do verify that a census taker who comes to your home is legitimate. They should have a Census Bureau photo ID badge (with a Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date) and a copy of the letter the bureau sent you. You can also search for an agent’s name in the Census Bureau’s online staff directory.
Do confirm that a questionnaire you’ve received is on the Census Bureau’s official list of household or business surveys.
Do contact the bureau’s National Processing Center or the regional office for your state to verify that an American Community Survey or other census communication is genuine.
Do check that a census mailing has a return address of Jeffersonville, Ind., the site of the National Processing Center. If it’s from somewhere else, it’s not from the Census Bureau.
Do check the URL of any supposed Census website. Make sure it has a census.gov domain and is encrypted — look for https:// or a lock symbol in the
Don’t give your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, or bank or credit card numbers to someone claiming to be from the Census Bureau. Genuine Census representatives will not ask for this information.
Don’t reply, click links or open attachments in a suspicious census email. Forward the message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t trust caller ID — scammers can use “spoofing” tools to make it appear they’re calling from a real Census Bureau number. Call the National Processing Center at 800-523-3205, 800-642-0469 or 800-877-8339 (TDD/TTY) to verify that a phone survey is legitimate.
The Census Bureau website includes a page on fraud with more information on spotting census scams by mail, phone, email and home visit.
You can report suspected scams to the regional Census Bureau office serving your state and to the Federal Trade Commission (online or at 877-382-4357).