In suspense…

Don’t look now, but I’ve been suspended.

That’s what the voice mail from the robocaller said.  The call came in with an in-state telephone number and Caller ID showing “Social Security Admin…” and the message was clear as day: “Your Social Security Number has been suspended because of suspicious activity. To restore it, press 1.”

220px-Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanWoe is me! What did I do? What do I do now? I wasn’t home to press 1 when the call came in.

For that last question, at least, we had our answer. The caller was persistent. We got at least six different chances over the next few days to press 1 and fix the problem, and we missed them all. They all ended up on voice mail.

Yet life goes on. How can this be? Could someone have made a mistake?

The Social Security Administration — the real Social Security Administration — does not suspend Social Security Numbers for suspicious activity. That’s not their job. And so they won’t call you.

Neither, for that matter, will the Internal Revenue Service, which is another agency people seem to get a lot of calls from. If the government has a question or problem, they’ll write to you at your established address on official stationery and give you a verifiable way to get back to them. You can also check back with any government agency through their contact numbers listed in the phone directory or the agency’s website.

Another giveaway: The robocall came in to a number that wasn’t listed, and it asked for no one by name. The robot at the other end of the line could not have known who would be picking up the phone.

What we have, then, is just the latest scam that’s been making the rounds nationwide, according to published reports. Ignore it. Don’t give any personal information away.(Presumably if you do press 1 you’ll be connected to a real person who tell you they need your name, number and other personal information so they can verify your case. Don’t give it.)

According to the real Social Security Administration, here’s what you need to know:

  • The SSA will never (ever) call and ask for your Social Security number. It won’t ask you to pay anything. And it won’t call to threaten your benefits.
  • Your caller ID might show the SSA’s real phone number (1-800-772-1213), but that’s not the real SSA calling. Computers make it easy to show any number on caller ID. You can’t trust what you see there.
  • Never give your Social Security number to anyone who contacts you. Don’t confirm the last 4 digits. And don’t give a bank account or credit card number – ever – to anybody who contacts you asking for it.
  • Remember that anyone who tells you to wire money, pay with a gift card, or send cash is a scammer. Always. No matter who they say they are.
  • If you’re worried about a call from someone who claims to be from the Social Security Administration, get off the phone. Then call the real SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). If you’ve spotted a scam, then tell the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

If you want your Social Security Number monitored for suspicious activity,  you can buy services that do that. We’ve had good experiences with LifeLock, which is another reason I was confident the phone call was a scam.

What a relief! I haven’t really been suspended, after all.

Sorry to keep you in suspense.

RSVP! It’s an emergency!

Although we’ve met on occasion in my former life as a newspaper editor, Waterbury (Connecticut) Mayor Neil M. O’Leary wouldn’t be able to recognize me in a crowd (I’ve tested this). The city’s police chief, Fernando Spagnolo, would know me by name only, if that. (I don’t think they have a mug shot of me hanging on the wall.)

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Yet when the two of them want to invite my wife and me to a party, it’s not only a big deal. It’s an emergency.

It said so right on the robocall we got this week: “Stand by for an emergency notification from CT-Alert.” They wanted us to come to the National Night Out, complete with face painting and balloon art.

Like just about everyone else in the world, we both carry smartphones these days. We’ve had the same numbers for years — back to when AT&T, then just about the only wireless game in town, issued them for the Waterbury area.

Over the years, we both signed up for emergency alert services both in Connecticut and in Vermont, where we have a summer place.  Both states offer people the chance to subscribe to notifications about emergencies such as criminal activity, natural disasters, winter storms, fires, major accidents, power failures, water main breaks and the like using SMS text messaging or automated robocalls to cellphones, landlines and other media.

These alerts can truly be life-savers. Over the years, we’ve used them to shelter from hurricanes and winter storms (which are all too common) and from tornadoes (less so, but too close to home). In doing so, we added the incoming SMS and toll-free numbers for both state’s services to our contacts.

That’s how we learned that both states appear to use the same emergency alert service. One day up in Vermont we received messages from what our contacts list identified as that state’s alert service that Mayor O’Leary and Chief Spagnolo were advising people that a water main break had closed, as I recall, Cherry Street in Waterbury.

I marveled at the coincidence. Not only did each state have a Waterbury, but both the big city and its tiny namesake had a Mayor O’Leary, a Chief Spagnolo and a Cherry Street!

Vermont’s Waterbury, population 5,064, has had to issue boil-water notices for the occasional water problem, but it doesn’t have a mayor or, as of last year, a police department. It is run by a select board (still known in Connecticut as the board of selectmen) and covered by two resident state police troopers. As far as I can tell, its only Cherry is Cherry Garcia at the Ben and Jerry’s tour.

No matter. Such emergency alerts are few and far between, especially if you sign up for only a few towns, such as where you live and work. In Connecticut, we had registered years ago for alerts from our home town of Southbury and from Middlebury, where we attend church, and Waterbury, where I worked for 35 years.

July 17Then, on July 17, coincidentally the day of the city’s Republican nominating convention and the day before the Democrats nominated O’Leary to run again, we got another one.

O’Leary and Spagnolo sent out an invitation to an open house to improve police community relations. An important program, to be sure; we need more community-building projects like that one, and like the National Night Out event we received notice of most recently. I’m all for them.

But is it really an emergency?

Both the mayor’s office and the police department are highly media-savvy: print, radio, grassroots organizations, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Even text messages would be appropriate, if the recipient were given the opportunity to opt into such social invitations.

Somehow, though, using an emergency alert system to invite people to a citywide community event seems an abuse of the medium. It might even backfire and lead people to ignore these text messages and robocalls. That could endanger public safety.

So, Mr. Mayor, if you really want to invite me to a party (seriously?), don’t robocall.  Don’t text. I’d rather read about it in the paper.

Howard Fielding is a retired editor and columnist for the Republican-American.