“Update: Termination of Your Social Security Number … Contact Us Immediately,” read the official-looking email from the Social Security Administration.

I was a suspicious senior.

The body of the email was even more ominous.

“Due to suspicious and fraudulent activities, we regret to you that your Social Security Number (SSN) will be terminated within 24 hours.”


How could I prevent my SSN from being “terminated within 24 hours”? An official-looking email attachment was titled “SSN-suspension_notice(37).”

“To know more about the case docket please refer to the given attached notice,” the email said.

I looked at the “attached notice” with greater suspicion but did not open it. I suspected the email was not sent by the SSA; I suspected it was fraudulent.

I printed a hard copy of the suspicious email and then emailed it to my member of Congress. I officially requested the member ask the SSA to confirm if they emailed me about the “termination” of my SSN. 

Members of Congress have direct contacts at the SSA. They can obtain quick replies, and I wanted a quick reply in the unlikely event my SSN was scheduled to be “terminated.”

I got an email from my member of Congress the next day. It included this welcomed message from the SSA about the suspicious email:

“This is a fraudulent email not from SSA; there are no issues on Mr. Patterson’s record. I refer his issue to OIG [Office of Inspector General]. You can advise him his email is probably compromised and not to provide any information or personally identifiable information via phone or email.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, personally identifiable information (PII) is defined as information that directly identifies an individual — name, address, Social Security number, telephone number, email address, etc.

PII is also information by which an agency can identify specific individuals in conjunction with other data elements (indirect identification), such as a combination of sex, race, birthdate, geographic indicators, and other descriptors.

Additionally, information permitting the physical or online contacting of a specific individual is the same as personally identifiable information. This information can be maintained in either paper, electronic, or other media.

Know what your PII is and never disclose it in emails or to telephone callers, especially emails or calls from unknown sources. Keep your PII private.

In this case of SSN “termination,” it paid for me to be a suspicious senior. You should be suspicious of such emails, too. Do not reply to these emails; they are likely attempts to obtain PII. 

Cyber crooks can use your PII to steal your Social Security benefits, other government entitlements, or your financial accounts.


James Patterson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and speaker.

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