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Beware of scammy census surveys (but don't ignore the real ones)!

Census workers genuinely exist — but they won't ask you questions like these

Graphic: U.S. Census Bureau
If you live in modern America, you must always be on guard against countless varieties of scam. Last week, a couple living in Bonne Terre, Missouri might have fallen for a “census bureau scam” – they answered questions from someone who definitely proved to be a scammer rather than a Census Bureau employee, but thus far it's too early to tell what, if anything, the scammer will do with his ill-gained knowledge about the couple.

The Census Scam is quite simple: the scammers pose as U.S. Census Bureau workers in order to ask certain personal questions of the intended victim. There are various ways the scammers can do this: send fake surveys through the U.S. Mail, set up fake websites purportedly from the real census bureau, call victims on the phone or even knock on their door — all of which real census workers might do, too.

So it's easy to see why people might fall for such a scam: if you live in the United States or any territories thereof, there really is a Census Bureau whose workers have legal authority to ask you various personal questions.

Once per decade

The standard population-counting census mentioned in the Constitution only takes place once per decade, in years ending in zero. But that doesn't mean the Census Bureau takes the rest of the time off; during the non-census years, it runs the American Community Survey, which Census.gov describes as a “mandatory ongoing statistical survey that samples a small percentage of the population every year -- giving communities the information they need to plan investments and services.”

The ACS does ask a great many questions which would be considered “intensely personal” or even “none of your [obscenity deleted] beeswax” if a random stranger demanded such answers from you: financial questions including how much your home is worth, how big it is and what amenities it has; how much you pay for rent, utilities, condominium fees, insurance, real estate taxes and/or mobile home fees (as applicable); your current and former employment status, what type of job you have, how you get to work and how lengthy your typical commute is; questions about your marital and military history as applicable; and a variety of others.

These American Community Survey questions are so personal, sometimes people who get genuine ACS forms in the mail will mistakenly think they're from a scammer. Last August, for example, columnist Melanie Payne with the News-Press of Fort Myers, Florida, said that “[a]t least once every three months or so I get an irate call from a reader about a form they received 'supposedly' from the U.S. Census Bureau …. [the reader] thought this form was a scam. It isn't.”

That said: the Census Bureau will not go so far as to ask how much money is in your bank account, how much you're paid, what time you leave for work each morning or when you return home at night, the exact specific route you take, any account numbers or passwords, and other questions whose answers might prove useful to burglars or identity thieves.

Sounded plausible

But an unnamed couple in Bonne Terre, Missouri, might have answered some of these scam questions anyway. The Daily Journal Online reported on Monday that the whole thing started when the couple got a letter in the mail, saying that the Census Bureau wanted them to complete a survey.

Sounds plausible, right? The couple went along with it. As the Daily Journal Online explained:

After time passed they decided to get online through a web address listed on the papers sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Once on the site, the resident explained that her husband started to fill out the survey online, until he reached a point that he felt [the questions were] too personal …. Shortly after, they received a phone call ... claiming to be from the Census Bureau. After the resident explained that they didn’t feel comfortable answering such personal in-depth questions, the caller began making threats toward them indicating that if they did not cooperate, they would send out authorities to arrest them and they would get prison time for it. At that point, the couple cooperated … out of fear of doing jail time.

Although filling out census forms is indeed mandatory, legitimate employees of the Census Bureau never make arrest threats over the phone. (The same rule applies to other forms of “fake government employee scam,” too. For example, people really can go to jail if they don't pay their taxes – but real IRS agents collecting back taxes do not threaten to arrest and imprison taxpayers unless they pay up that day. Any so-called IRS agent threatening you'll go to prison tonight unless you pay up today is a scammer.)

What to do

Here are some other things which genuine Census Bureau employees never do, according to guidelines posted on the Census Bureau's official website at Census.gov (not .com):

You may be the victim of a scam if someone claiming to be from the Census Bureau asks you for certain information.  The Census Bureau never asks for:

your full Social Security number

money or donations

anything on behalf of a political party

your full bank or credit card account numbers

your mother’s maiden name

If you get a phone call, letter or in-person visitor purporting to be from the Census Bureau, and you want to verify its authenticity, the Census Bureau advises you to call the National Processing Center (NPC) (an Authorized Partner), at one of these numbers:

1-800-392-6975   Hagerstown, MD

1-800-523-3205   Jeffersonville, IN

1-800-642-0469   Tucson, AZ

1-800-877-8339   TDD/TTY

The operating hours for the various NPC locations are listed online here, on the Census Bureau's “Contact Us” page.

If you can't call to verify because your “Census” worker called or visited you after NPC office hours – that alone suggests it's a scam. Real Census Bureau employees won't get angry when you want to verify their identities before answering their questions – and real Census Bureau employees won't threaten to arrest you, either.

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