(CBS) -- Thousands of Social Security beneficiaries have become victims of identity thieves who have hacked into their accounts and stolen millions of dollars in desperately needed benefits.
69-year-old Carole Folkes is one of them. For seven years her $354 Social Security check was directly deposited into her bank account. Then last June, she said, "The Social Security check wasn't there and I was baffled."
Folkes called Social Security and was told her money was sent to a different bank and she was supposedly sent a debit card to collect it.
"I said oh, no way. I never requested my check to go there," Folkes recalled adding, "I haven't gotten any debit card."
Folkes, who is confined to a wheelchair, said she had to make three trips to her Social Security office to try and straighten it out. In the weeks it took to get a replacement check, Folkes got an eviction notice from her building manager because she did not have enough money to pay the rent.
She finally got a replacement check but still has questions.
"How does an account get opened up in your name and you're not participating at all?" Folkes asked. "I don't understand that."
It happens when con artists get enough personal information about you to fill in the blanks on the Social Security website to open an online account in your name, then redirect your benefit to their bank account.
They also may apply for debit cards in your name, but have the cards sent to their address, which happened in Folkes case.
Federal investigators say the scammers get the personal information several ways.
"They go into these underground chat rooms where they can purchase lists with people's names on them including Social Security numbers," said Jerry Phillips, an investigator with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "And they are usually charged $3 a name."
They cherry pick people at retirement age, Phillips said, or they will make cold calls to seniors saying, for example, that they won a lottery.
Bill Cotter, Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Inspector General's office for the Social Security Administration, recited a typical pitch.
"Please send us your bank account information, your date of birth and your full name and your Social Security number and we will deposit $150,000 into your account."
Others may call, "portraying themselves to actually be from the Social Security administration and asking them to verify their information for Social Security," Phillips said.
Most often the scammers are hard to track because they operate from different countries. But, fifteen people have been charged with stealing Social Security benefits including Tabaris Archie Brown, a Social Security call-taker in the Birmingham teleservice center sentenced last month to 30 months in prison.
As a call taker Tabaris had access to all the information he needed when a beneficiary called with questions about a payment.
"What Mr. Brown was doing was redirecting that payment to another account. His."
Brown was charged with changing the direct deposit information for 11 beneficiaries.
"We caught him almost immediately because of the checks and balances in place," Cotter said.
The Inspector General's office reported this year on an audit that identified 23,192 beneficiaries who did not receive $28.3 million in benefits between Sept. 2011 and June 2012 due to unauthorized direct deposit changes. Of that, $17.4 million has not been recovered. Through August 2014, 38,585 allegations of direct deposit fraud have been made by beneficiaries.
"This is incredible." Folkes said. "This should've never happened."
A spokesman for the Chicago Social Security office checked into Folkes' complaint and told CBS 2, "We sincerely apologize for the processing delays in restoring her benefits and the local staff has since received more training on how to handle such matters."
Officials also say changes have been made to make it more difficult for thieves to redirect benefit payments and the number of complaints has gone down. And now beneficiaries are sent letters confirming that an online account has been opened or changes have been made on an existing account. You should contact Social Security immediately, they say, if you did not make the changes.
People who think they are victims of Social Security payment fraud should contact the Inspector General
at 1-800-269-0271 or online at oig.ssa.gov/report-fraud-waste-or-abuse.
Also, you can block electronic access to their Social Security record at www.socialsecurity.gov/onlineservices.
A spokesman says no one will be able to see or change personal information on the internet or through Social Security's automated telephone service with this block in place.
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