In November 2022, we received an email from a reader about a letter received in the mail from the U.S. Postal Service. The reader asked if the letter about an "American Community Survey" that bore the U.S. Census Bureau logo was a scam or legit. In truth, this was legitimate correspondence from the U.S. government.
"Your address has been randomly selected by the U.S. Census Bureau to participate in the American Community Survey," the legitimate letter began. "The Census Bureau conducts this survey each year to give our country an up-to-date picture of how we live — including our housing, education, and jobs."
According to the letter, responses to the "American Community Survey" help communities to decide where important services are needed, including improving roads and reducing traffic, building schools, and planning for the health care needs of the elderly. It was signed by the Census Bureau's director, Robert Santos.
The letter asked recipients to visit respond.census.gov/acs, which is a page on the official Census Bureau website. A "user ID" was provided to log in.
"Your response is required by U.S. law," the letter said in big, bold letters. This was true, as the Census Bureau once noted on a Frequently Asked Questions page.
"We are conducting this survey under the authority of Title 13, U.S. Code, Sections 141 and 193," the letter read. "Title 13, Section 221, as changed by Title 18, imposes a penalty for not responding."
According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, the penalty for not answering the survey cannot exceed $100. However, a fine of up to $500 could potentially be enforced for submitting answers that include false information.
In 2014, PolitiFact reported that a fine of up to $5,000 was also a possibility, according to the U.S. Government Publishing Office. At the same time, PolitiFact noted that, as of the year it published its story, there was no record of anyone being fined for failing to participate in the survey.
We reached out to the Census Bureau with several questions, including asking if anyone had ever been fined or served jail time for failing to complete the survey. This story will be updated if we receive a response.
"13 U.S. Code § 221 - Refusal or Neglect to Answer Questions; False Answers." LII / Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/13/221.
"FAQs: Do I Have to Respond to the American Community Survey (ACS)?" U.S. Census Bureau, https://askacs.census.gov/faq.php?id=5000&faqId=7455.
Selby, W. Gardner. "PolitiFact - Americans Must Answer U.S. Census Bureau Survey by Law, Though Agency Hasn't Prosecuted since 1970." PolitiFact, 9 Jan. 2014, https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2014/jan/09/us-census-bureau/americans-must-answer-us-census-bureau-survey-law-/.
The American Community Survey and the 2020 Census. U.S. Census Bureau, 2020, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/programs-surveys/acs/about/ACS-54(HU)(3-2020).pdf.
"U.S.C. Title 18 - CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE." GovInfo.gov, 2010, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2010-title18/html/USCODE-2010-title18-partII-chap227-subchapC-sec3571.htm.
"Wayback Machine." Internet Archive, https://web.archive.org/.