The U.S. Census is meant to capture an accurate snapshot of the population once every decade. It also creates an opportunity for identity thieves to try to steal personal information.
Census scams are nothing new and while the 2020 Census is wrapping up, the potential for fraudulent activity will continue to persist. The need to be vigilant in protecting your information is real but for many Americans, the details of how to do it are fuzzy. In an AARP survey, for example, 70% of adults 18 and older said they were unfamiliar with the ways in which census scams could take shape.
Knowing how to identify census scams, even if you've already completed your census form for the year, can make it easier to keep your personal details safe and secure moving forward.
U.S. Census vs. American Community Survey
The government uses the Census to collect data on those living in the U.S. This initiative occurs once every 10 years and determines how federal aid funding is distributed to states as well as the number of representatives each state is allowed in the federal legislature.
The American Community Survey (ACS), on the other hand, is conducted monthly, every year. This survey determines how funding and public works projects are managed at the local level. It covers important topics not included on the 10-year Census, such as education, employment, transportation, and internet access.
While both surveys are completely legitimate, they are also susceptible to scams. But because the ACS is ongoing, it provides scammers with even more opportunities to attempt to steal information.
If your household is selected for the ACS, you must complete it as required by law under Title 13 of the U.S. Code.
The Most Common Types of Census Scams
There are three different ways you can be asked to complete the U.S. Census survey: by phone, by mail, or online. Fraudsters can target all three with census scams so it's important to know what those scams might look like.
Phone Census Scams
One of the ways you may be targeted by a census scam is through a phone request for personal information. Someone may call you, identify themselves as a census taker, and ask you to complete the census questions over the phone. The caller may even use number “spoofing” to make it look like the call is coming from a U.S. Census Bureau office.
A key way to identify a census phone scam is by the questions the caller asks. According to the Census Bureau, an official census taker will never ask for:
- Your full Social Security number
- Your mother's maiden name
- Bank account or credit card account details
- Money or donations
- Anything on behalf of a political party
If you believe you’re receiving a suspicious call from a fraudulent census taker, hang up and call the National Processing Center to verify its authenticity.
Mail Census Scams
Census scams can also be attempted through the mail. This type of scam usually involves sending someone a census form that is actually fake. The recipient completes the form with personal details and mails it back, assuming it's going to the Census Bureau. But instead, it goes directly to a scammer.
You can verify census forms received in the mail by checking that the return address is Jeffersonville, Indiana, and following up with a call to your regional census office.
Online Census Scams
Online census scams can take different forms, including:
You may, for example, receive an email or text asking for follow-up information after completing a census survey. Those messages may contain what appears to be a genuine link to Respond.Census.gov or another census bureau site that's actually fake or infected with malware.
To help verify if a social media post, online advertisement, text, or email is valid, the Census Bureau has provided a list of approved national partners who are helping spread awareness about the importance of responding to the U.S. Census.
In-Person Census Scams
Door to door census-taking activity was hindered in early 2020, but the Census Bureau resumed follow-up visits to approximately 56 million U.S. households in July. This, of course, still makes it a viable option for those with malicious intent to show up at your home and claim to be a Census Bureau representative. With this type of scam, they'd identify themselves as a census taker and ask you questions that are designed to gather personal information outside the scope of the census.
To verify that you’re greeting an official Census Bureau employee, make sure they have an ID badge that includes their name, matching photograph, a Department of Commerce watermark, and an expiration date.
Authorized census takers will also carry an official bag and a Census Bureau-approved laptop or phone bearing the department’s official logo, and will only conduct their work between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time.
Signs of a Census Scam
There are some tells that can give away a census scam. Being aware of some of the most common signs can make it easier to avoid falling victim.
These warning signs include:
- Being asked to share sensitive information that's outside the scope of the census (i.e. your Social Security number, mother's maiden name, etc.)
- A census taker comes to your home without presenting a badge or official ID
- Being asked to support a political party or candidate by a census taker
- Census takers who make requests for money
- Unsolicited texts or emails that ask you to click a link and provide more information
- Census takers who threaten you with jail time for not completing the census
Scammers can not only employ these tactics with the 10-year Census, but can also try them with the American Community Service or other government surveys, such as the Small Business Pulse Survey. If you're asked to share information for a government survey, you can check the Census Bureau's list of surveys to verify its legitimacy before responding.
How to Stay Safe From Scammers
Avoiding census scams is important for protecting your personal and financial information. Knowing the most common signs of a census scam is the first step but there are other things you can do to protect yourself.
Here's what the Census Bureau recommends to keep yourself safe from census scams:
- If you receive census forms in the mail, verify that the return address is Jeffersonville, Indiana
- Contact your regional census office to verify that any household surveys received by mail are legitimate
- Before completing a phone survey, call the National Processing Center to verify that the caller is a census employee
- Ask for a valid Census Bureau ID for any census takers who come to your home
- If you receive an email that looks suspicious, don't click on any links and forward it to the Census Bureau at email@example.com
Sign up for consumer alerts from the Federal Trade Commission for updates on the latest census scams and other scams targeting consumers.
- The U.S. Census is conducted once every 10 years and is used to collect demographic information about American households.
- The American Community Survey is conducted monthly, every year, and is also used to collect personal details regarding things like education, employment, and internet access.
- Census scams can take different forms, including phone scams, email scams, online scams, and in-person scams.
- Before completing a census form or another government survey, first verify that it's authorized by the agency that's conducting it.
- If you suspect you've been targeted by a census scam, report it to the Census Bureau immediately.