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How Do Census Scams Work?
The official U.S. census only takes place every ten years (the last one was in 2020). But that doesn’t stop identity thieves from using the confusion that surrounds the official census to commit fraud and scams.
Census scams were a major concern in 2020 and continue to be so today. Scammers call, text, or send unsolicited emails claiming to be from the census bureau and trick you into giving up your sensitive personal information or paying fake fines.
So, how do you know if you’re at risk of a census scam? Or if the person contacting you is actually from the Census Bureau and not a scammer in disguise?
In this guide, we’ll explain how census scams work, what to look out for, and how to keep your personal information safe.
How Fraudsters Use The Decennial Survey to Scam You
The decennial census is conducted on Census Day — April 1 — in those years that end in a zero. Article I, Sections 2 and 9 of the Constitution makes this enumeration of the residents of America mandatory.
In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time, let residents respond to the census online, by phone, and by mail. The Census Bureau may only use your information to produce statistics and never share data with ICE, the FBI, or the police.
The data collected during each census is extensive and has many purposes:
- Allocating federal funds and/or assistance to communities, states, and localities.
- Deciding where to build schools, supermarkets, homes, or hospitals.
- Determining the number of House Representatives that each state is designated.
- Drawing the lines of legislative districts.
Everyone over 18 is legally obligated to answer the census. Failing to do so or providing false information carries a penalty that, in some cases, can be as high as $5,000 [*].
It’s this combination of highly personal information gathering and threat of fines that makes the decennial census such a valuable target for scammers.
They’ll send phishing emails claiming to be officials from the Census Bureau and ask you to “verify” your personal information or tell you that you’re in trouble for submitting fake information and need to pay a fine.
The census requests information including the names and number of people in your household, their relationship to you, their ages and dates of birth, race, and more.
While these census questions alone certainly don’t lead to identity theft, they can be coupled with other questions that could put your personal information in jeopardy.
And now that the Census Bureau allows citizens to answer the census questionnaire online or by phone (instead of just mailing in a census form), scammers have easier avenues to trick you into giving up your information.
How Do Census Scams Work?
Census scams work in the same way as other imposter scams. These bad actors take advantage of the trust you have in government officials in hopes that you will divulge personally identifiable information (PII).
For example, here’s how a census scam over the phone might play out:
- First, you’re contacted by someone claiming to be from the Census Bureau. They might even use technology to “spoof” their phone number and make it look like it’s coming from an official bureau number.
- Next, they either ask you to “confirm” your personal information or use stolen information to convince you that they’re legitimate.
- Once you’re convinced, they’ll push you to reveal more sensitive information that was “missed” in your census form. For example, credit card numbers and other financial information.
- In another version of the scam, they’ll claim you purposefully submitted false information and need to pay a fine or risk going to jail. They’ll ask for payment in gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrencies.
- Any information you give them is then used for identity theft and fraud. And any money you send is gone for good.
A similar version of this scam plays out online. Scammers send a phishing email with a link to what looks like the official Census Bureau homepage. Again, they’ll ask you to enter sensitive information or pay a fine. But the site is a fake and all the information and payments you provide go straight to the scammer.
What about other government surveys?
The once-a-decade census isn’t the only survey the bureau conducts. There are over 100 other surveys conducted each year (and even more since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic).
This only adds to the confusion around census scams and what is legitimate and safe to answer.
Among those surveys is The American Community Survey (ACS). Data from this survey determines how $675 billion in federal and state funds are allocated each year. More than 3.5 million randomly selected households receive this survey.
ACS includes questions about income, assets, job status, and commuting — this prompts concern from vigilant residents even though the survey is completely legitimate.
8 Top Census and Government Survey Scams To Avoid
1. Imposters posing as census takers on the phone (i.e., phone “spoofing”)
Phone spoofing scams happen when scammers fake or “spoof” their phone number to make you think they are calling from a known number. This can make it difficult to tell if a caller is legitimate.
Remember, all Census Bureau employees have a script they follow, and they provide information like a case ID number. If callers don’t provide these details, verify their identity before you proceed. An alternative is verification through your state’s Census Bureau Regional Office.
2. Delinquency scams trying to get you to pay to avoid jail time
Although intentionally avoiding the census can carry a fine, imposing fines is a last resort and is an unlikely occurrence. Fines may not be processed by the bureau itself, so anyone claiming that you will go to jail over the census is a scammer.
Take extra care to not hand over financial information on the phone to pay any such fines related to the census. And if anyone calls or contacts you claiming to be from a government agency and asks for payment via wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrency, it’s a scam.
3. Direct-mail census scams pretending to be official questionnaires
The Census Bureau traditionally contacts survey recipients through the mail, making this a seemingly legitimate channel for scammers to contact you, too. These fake surveys will ask for extra information, such as your full Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, financial account information, and more.
Be on the lookout for any census or survey invitations that do not contain an appropriate return address information or a census ID — a 12-character series of numbers and letters.
The Census Bureau will also never send you a postcard with a QR code instructing you to scan the code to access the survey page. Scanning an unknown code like this may download malware onto your smartphone.
4. Fake census takers coming to your home
A census worker could come to your house to collect census information, so it’s important to know what a census worker looks like to help you identify would-be-fraudsters.
Census workers always have their official U.S. Census Bureau ID badge. They’ll also have official bureau equipment with the bureau’s logo. Visiting hours will also be from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. If they’re missing official identification or visiting outside of those hours, be suspicious.
5. Phishing emails and fake census websites
Phishing is when a scammer pretends to be someone you trust with the goal of obtaining your personal information. A phishing scam could direct you through an email, text message, or even social media post to an innocuous-looking website.
Once you’re on this website, you may be prompted to enter usernames, passwords, Social Security numbers, and bank account or credit card account details.
Remember to never click on any unknown links, and look for two crucial indications of a valid census URL:
- https: (at the beginning of the URL)
- .gov (at the end of the URL)
6. Fake census “invitations” that download malware onto your device
Another way that scammers use phishing messages is to get you to download malware onto your devices. Malware is a malicious program that can be used to lock, spy on, or disable your device.
Some census scams include a seemingly valid invitation, link, or attachment that deliberately downloads malware to your computer or smartphone.
Always be cautious of links and attachments in emails from people you don’t know (even if they claim to be from a government agency). If you’re unsure, contact the Census Bureau directly and ask if the email is legitimate.
7. Social media census
Some scammers use social media to trick you into visiting a phishing site or downloading malware. These census scams work in two ways:
- Targeted social media scams are when a scammer targets you personally. You might receive a message from someone claiming to be from the bureau or get sent a link.
- Randomized social media scams are when scammers post stories, ads, and links that look official, but really send you to a phishing site. Sometimes, scammers take over real social media accounts to make it look like your “friend” is posting.
Be wary of anyone claiming to be from the Census Bureau on social media. If you click on a link, check the page for signs it’s a scam.
8. Fake census job postings
Another related census scam is when fraudsters create fake job listings for positions with the bureau. They’ll post to major job boards like Indeed and claim to offer high salaries for easy positions (such as going through census data online).
But if you apply, they’ll ask for sensitive information in your job application — such as your SSN and bank account information. They might even ask you to pay for materials or training before you start. But this is all a scam.
Also similar to a social media or phishing scam, a census jobs scam puts out what seems like an authentic job posting to collect PII. A good rule of thumb for job postings is to never hand over any sensitive financial information.
A real, potential employer wouldn’t ask for that until much later — any application fees are a red flag, too.
How To Avoid Census Scams: 5 Deliberate Steps
So how can you tell the legitimate surveys from the scams? There are things no real census worker would ever ask you that should indicate red flags for you. A census agent will not ask you for:
- Money or donations
- Your full Social Security number
- Credit card or bank account numbers
- Your mother's maiden name
- Passwords to any account
- Favors on behalf of a political party
- For answers by threatening jail time otherwise
Seeking sensitive information is a surefire way to discern a census taker from a scammer who is phishing to commit identity theft.
In addition to recognizing these warning signs, there are steps you can take to verify that a census survey is bonafide.
1. Verify physical mail from the Census Bureau
If you receive a letter or survey alleging it’s from the bureau, here are a few obvious signs of legitimacy on the envelope.
- “U.S. Census Bureau” in the return address or “U.S. Department of Commerce” (which is the bureau’s parent agency).
- The return address should also include Jeffersonville, Indiana where the bureau has its mail processing center.
The mailer should also include information on how to complete the survey online — instructions to register online and/or log in.
2. Verify an email or text message from the bureau
Some surveys are sent out via text message, like the Household Pulse Survey, and others are sent via email. For email or text messages from the bureau:
- Look for the number 39242 if it’s a text message, with a link to complete the questionnaire online. This is the bureau’s “short code” and is a good way to identify them.
- Respond only to emails sent from the official Census Bureau domain: @census.gov.
- Hover over any links to make sure they lead directly to an official federal government website that ends in .gov.
If the text or the email contains information about the bureau employee who sent it, verify that through the Census Bureau staff directory.
This staff directory lists name and contact information for all the bureau employees, but not cell phone numbers. You can also contact the Regional Office in your state.
3. Verify phone calls from the bureau
There are a few reasons why the Census Bureau might call you — some census surveys are conducted exclusively over the phone. Or a representative might call you if they were not able to find you at home (or when a home visit can’t be arranged).
If someone tries to contact you about a household survey, remember:
- Callers should identify themselves and the name of the survey.
- They should be calling from one of two contact centers:
- Jeffersonville, Indiana (Caller ID number: (812) 218-3144)
- Tucson, Arizona (Caller ID number: (520) 798-4152)
- Voicemails will include a case ID that you can verify online
Any of these calls can be verified by calling your state’s Regional Census Bureau Office.
4. Verify agent or census taker identity
Someone from the Census Bureau could be working on the census follow-up survey and potentially visit your home. Here’s how to identify a bonafide bureau employee:
- They will have their official U.S. Census Bureau ID badge on them with their name, photograph, a Department of Commerce watermark, and an expiration date
- Census takers will have Bureau-issued electronic devices (like a laptop or a smartphone) with the bureau logo on it
- Bureau workers only conduct survey work between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., local time
5. Sign up for identity theft protection
There’s always the chance that a scammer will get past your defenses. In those cases, it pays to be protected by identity theft protection. Identity Guard monitors all your accounts and sensitive information and will alert you in near-real time if anyone is using your identity without your permission.
Plus, if the worst happens, you have 24/7 access to a team of Fraud Resolution specialists and are covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft.
Suspect a Census Scam? Here’s How To Report It
For mail fraud: If you receive mail about the census, confirm the return address is Jeffersonville, Indiana. If it is, but you’re still unsure of the census survey’s authenticity, call the Regional Office of your state to verify the survey.
For email fraud: In case of a suspicious email, do not click on any links, open any attachments, or reply. Simply forward the email or URL to the Census Bureau at firstname.lastname@example.org and then delete the message. The bureau will investigate and follow up with findings.
For phone fraud: If someone calls your home to complete a questionnaire, call the Bureau’s National Processing Center to verify that the caller is a Census Bureau employee.
For Census Bureau imposter fraud: For home visits to complete a survey, check for valid U.S. Census Bureau IDs. As an extra step, also call your state’s Regional Office to confirm their identity. If you think you’ve been contacted by a scammer, file a report with your local police as well.
The Bottom Line: Keep Your Personal Information Safe
Scammers love any legitimate situation where you would give up normally secure information — like SSNs and financial information. But don’t fall for their tricks. Members of the Census Bureau will never threaten you or contact you over social media. And they certainly won’t demand you pay fines with gift cards or cryptocurrency.
If you get contacted by someone claiming to be taking a government survey, make sure they can verify their identity. If they can’t, leave the conversation and contact the agency directly.