Fact Check

Census Concerns

Scammers pose as census workers to elicit personal information from unsuspecting victims?

Published Sep 11, 2009

Scam:   Scammers pose as census workers to elicit personal information from unsuspecting victims.

Origins:   Many modern scams involve the obtaining of personal information (e.g., names, phone numbers, addresses, Social Security numbers), data which fraudsters can use in a variety of ways to loot the bank accounts and credit lines of unsuspecting victims. Unfortunately, scammers often find easy pickings, because some people still offer up such information indiscriminately; and even those who are more cautious about providing personal information only to appropriate authorities are often fooled by crooks who falsely pose as official representatives of agencies

such as financial institutions, law enforcement, and government.

The census undertaken by the federal government in the United States once every ten years can provide ample opportunities for identity theft scammers. Most citizens know that U.S. Census Bureau officials will be contacting them in person, on the phone, or by mail to verify their addresses and gather information (e.g., name, age, gender) about persons in their households, so during the census period they may let down their guards and more willingly provide information (or entry to their homes) to unauthorized strangers posing as government officials. Reports of con artists taking advantage of these circumstances were not uncommon during previous censuses and have already started rolling regarding the upcoming 2010 census, as these reports from 1990, 2000, and 2009 (respectively) demonstrate:

An 80-year-old North Carolina woman was tied up and robbed by two men she thought were census workers. Con artists claiming to be census employees charged Houston residents $50 after helping them complete their forms.

Isolated incidents of con artists posing as census workers have occurred during every census, said Ray Bancroft of the census promotion office.

In the North Carolina case, the woman initially allowed only one man into her home and was having a "nice conversation" with him when the doorbell rang and the man told her it was his partner, said Tom Smith Jr. of the Charlotte, N.C., census office.

"They tied her up and commenced taking some valuable things from the house as well as her car," Smith said, adding that the woman was not physically injured.

In the Midwest, about a dozen people have complained that "someone has come around saying they're taking a census, not saying the U.S. Census Bureau, and then they ask demographic type of questions, generally including some income questions," said Marvin Postma, director of the Kansas City census region office.

Con artists posing as census takers have attempted to get Social Security numbers and gain entry into local homes, according to the Better Business Bureau president.

"Those are the two things that are most prevalent. It's happening throughout the United States," said Jere L. Bennett, president of the local BBB office.

Mr. Bennett said his office has received phone inquiries during the past month about fake census enumerators — people who contact residents by telephone and in person — wanting information.

Some senior citizens in Congressman Bill Foster's district recently received what appears to be a scam letter in the mail that solicits credit card information and donations while falsely appearing to be authored by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The eight-page mailer starts with a header identifying the letter as being sent by the "National Census of Senior Citizens" and the "Council for Retirement Security." The letter describes itself as an advocate for senior citizen interests and asks a number of questions about political issues before soliciting a minimum contribution of $14.58 or more by providing credit card information.

Since the first phase of the 2010 U.S. Census is already underway, reminders about how to ensure you provide information only to official Census Bureau representatives — and provide only the types of information they are authorized to collect — are especially timely. The web site of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) offers some good advice on this topic:

  • If a U.S. Census worker knocks on your door, they will have a badge, a handheld device, a Census Bureau canvas bag and a confidentiality notice. Ask to see their identification and their badge before answering their questions. However, you should never invite anyone you don’t know into your home.
  • Census workers are currently only knocking on doors to verify address information. Do not give your Social Security number, credit card or banking information to anyone, even if they claim they need it for the U.S. Census. While the Census Bureau might ask for basic financial information, such as a salary range, it will not ask for Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers, nor will employees solicit donations.
  • Eventually, Census workers may contact you by telephone, mail or in person at home. However, they will not contact you by e-mail, so be on the look out for e-mail scams impersonating the Census. Never click on a link or open any attachments in an e-mail that are supposedly from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last updated:   11 September 2009


  Sources Sources:

    Fuller, James.   "'National Census' Scam Targets Senior Citizens."

    [Chicago] Daily Herald.   7 May 2009.

    Skorneck, Carolyn.   "Count on Scam Artists to Profit from Census."

    Chicago Sun-Times.   29 May 1990.

    Walker, Clarissa J.   "Bureau Warns of Census Scam."

    The August Chronicle.   11 April 2000.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.