No, the Social Security Administration won’t call you about “suspicious activity.”

So my wife rings me up at work this morning to tell me about a strange phone call she’d just gotten. An automated voice claiming to be from the Social Security Administration was contacting her about suspicious activity involving her SSN that will result in an immediate suspension of her number if she doesn’t take steps to clear her name. The longer she listened to it the more she thought to herself, “This is bullshit,” and she hung up on the call.

She called me because there was just enough of a nagging doubt that she wanted to make sure she did the right thing. She did. It’s a scam that’s been growing since at least 2017. Here’s a recording of one of these calls:

Gotta admit that I can see how some folks would panic if they got a phone call like that one. It sounds legit enough and it doesn’t help that the scammers are spoofing the real phone number of the SSA (1-800-772-1213) on your Caller ID.

There are two basic types of these calls. One is to try and get you to “verify” your SSN by entering it into the phone so they can attempt Identity Theft. With the other type they try to get you to pay a fee by going out and buying gift cards and then reading off the codes to those cards to the scammer on the phone. This is basically the same scam as the IRS imposter scam that was making the rounds for a few years.

According to the FTC website:

In 2017, we heard from 3,200 people about SSA imposter scams, and those people reported losing nearly $210,000. So far THIS year: more than 35,000 people have reported the scam, and they tell us they’ve lost $10 million.

Source: This is what a Social Security scam sounds like – Federal Trade Commission

The page I’m quoting from was last updated in December of 2018 and it’s only gotten worse since then. From April 2018 to March 2019 the reported losses grew to $19 million.

Here’s the bit that I don’t get: How is it that folks are not recognizing this is a scam as soon as they’re told to go out and buy gift cards and then read the numbers off to the guy on the phone? How is that not a smack over the head that this is not a legit call?

I mean, I can understand falling for the request to verify your SSN because there are lots of occasions (banks, etc.) where you might be asked to do that, but who out there is so dumb to think that a government agency accepts payment by gift cards only or, worse, Bitcoin?

In an updated article about this from this past April, the FTC said:

Click to embiggen.

As the graphic shows, people reported the IRS scam (in blue) in huge numbers for many years, but the new SSA scam (in orange) is trending in the same direction – with a vengeance. People filed over 76,000 reports about Social Security imposters in the past 12 months, with reported losses of $19 million.1 Compare that to the $17 million in reported losses to the IRS scam in its peak year.2 About 36,000 reports and $6.7 million in reported losses are from the past two months alone.

Just 3.4% of people who report the Social Security scam tell us they lost money.3 Most people we hear from are just worried because they believe a scammer has their Social Security number. But when people do lose money, they lose a lot: the median individual reported loss last year was $1,500, four times higher than the median individual loss for all frauds.4 All age groups are reporting this scam in high numbers, with older and younger adults filing loss reports at similar rates.5

People report sending money in unconventional ways. Most often, people say they gave the scammer the PIN numbers on the back of gift cards. Virtual currencies like Bitcoin come in a distant second to gift cards: people say they withdrew money and fed cash into Bitcoin ATMs. With both methods, the scammer gets quick cash while staying anonymous, and the money people thought they were keeping safe is simply gone.

So let’s break a few things down:

  • No, your SSN is not about to be suspended, your bank accounts are not about to be seized, and you are not about to have an arrest warrant put out on you. This is bullshit, plain and simple.
  • The Social Security Administration will never contact you and tell you to wire them money, send cash, or (for crying out loud) give them gift cards or they’ll suspend your benefits. Never. Doesn’t happen.
  • You should never give out your SSN and/or personally identifying info to someone who has called you out of the blue even if you think it’s legit and the Called ID is the real number for whomever is calling. Hang up and call a number you know is associated with whatever you’re dealing with to make sure the request is legit first.
  • If you did do the above then go to to learn what steps you can take to protect yourself from Identity Theft.
  • Lastly, report government imposter scams to the FTC at To learn more, visit

As always, be vigilant. There are a lot of unscrupulous people in this world working hard to scam you out of your money. If something smells like bullshit to you then it’s probably bullshit and you should do some digging before handing over any info or money. Most importantly, remain calm. These assholes are relying on you freaking out to make it easier to get you to do something stupid. Don’t be stupid. Don’t freak out.

Sylvia Browne manages to be wrong one last time.

Sylvia-BrowneSelf-proclaimed professional psychic Sylvia Browne, whom I’ve written about previously, has passed away at the age of 77. Some 11 years short of her prediction that she’d die at the age of 88.

I mention her passing not as an opportunity to gloat or celebrate her death, but as a final point to the fact that she was a charlatan who made herself rich preying upon grieving and desperate people while providing no real benefit to anyone outside of herself.

Alas, she is (was) not alone in lacking the scruples required to not take advantage of vulnerable and gullible people. Plenty of other “psychics” will fill the void left by her passing in short time. The best we can do is to continue to point out their techniques and try to educate people to avoid being scammed.

This is why all the characters in horror movies are idiots.

Because the moment you put in people who are skeptical, have decent critical thinking skills, or aren’t overly susceptible to peer pressure it becomes a much shorter movie:

I’d still probably pay money to see it.

‘Angel’ priest at car crash turns out just to be a normal priest.

OuBKEI had a crapload of people email me this link to an article titled: ‘Angel’ priest visits Missouri accident scene. It tells the story of 19-year-old Katie Lentz’s horrific accident that left her trapped in her car as emergency workers struggled with failing equipment in their attempt to free her.

With time running out the firemen decided on a risky move that might result in Katie’s condition going from bad to worse:

That’s when Lentz asked if someone would pray with her and a voice said, “I will.”

The silver-haired priest in his 50s or 60s in black pants, black shirt and black collar with visible white insert stepped forward from nowhere. It struck Reed as odd because the street was blocked off 2 miles from the scene and no one from the nearby communities recognized him.

“We’re all local people from four different towns,” Reed said. “We’ve only got one Catholic church out of three towns and it wasn’t their priest.”

Reed and the other emergency workers were on their knees. The priest of about medium build, maybe 6-feet-tall, stood above them.

“This priest approached Katie and began to pray openly with her,” Reed said. “He had a bottle of anointing oil with him and he used that.”

The firemen sat the car upright and Katie’s vitals improved and another team showed up with new equipment that allowed them to free her from the wreck. That’s when Reed went to thank the priest, but he was gone! Even more bizarre, the priest didn’t show up in any of the photos taken at the scene!

“I have 69 photographs that were taken from minutes after that accident happened — bystanders, the extrication, our final cleanup — and he’s not in them,” Reed said. “All we want to do is thank him.”

The most logical explanation folks could come up with? Angels!

“I think it’s a miracle,” Reed said. “I would say whether it was an angel that was sent to us in the form of a priest or a priest that became our angel, I don’t know. Either way, I’m good with it.”

Carla Churchill Lentz, mother of the teen who was critically injured, said emergency workers have told her there is no way her daughter should have lived inside such a mangled car. Of the priest, she said, “I do believe he certainly could have been an angel dressed in priest’s attire because the Bible tells us there are angels among us.”

At least one of the folks who emailed me the article asked how this could be possible? I replied that it’s likely it was just a normal, human priest that no one noticed approach or leave because they were busy working on the car and keeping Katie alive. But what about the photos, they asked. Simple: The priest wasn’t in front of the camera when the photos were taken or was obscured by the people surrounding him. In an emergency situation people’s attention tends to be highly focused on the problem at hand making it easy to not see a lot of what’s going on around them.

As it turns out, that’s pretty much what happened:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The mysterious priest who gave anointing to a Missouri woman trapped in her wrecked car has been identified as Father Patrick Dowling of the Diocese of Jefferson City.

[…] Father Dowling was driving by Center, Mo., while on his way back from offering Mass in Ewing. A native of Ireland, Father Dowling was ordained a priest for the Jefferson City Diocese in 1982. He currently serves in prison ministry, and also ministers to the Spanish-speaking population of the Diocese of Jefferson City.

Though the highway was blocked off, Father Dowling revealed he “did not leave with the other cars.” After parking as close as he could to the scene of the accident, he said he walked the remaining 150 yards.

“I asked the sheriff if a priest might be needed,” he said.

“When the young lady asked that I pray her leg stop hurting, I did so. She asked me to pray aloud, and I did briefly,” he said.

Father Dowling added, “The rescue workers needed space and would not have appreciated distraction. I stepped to one side and said my Rosary silently until the lady was taken from the car.”

At which point the priest walked back to his car and left. Nothing all that mysterious about it. He happened to be passing at the time and he stopped and offered a prayer to someone in need. The only thing amazing about it is how quickly people made the jump to a supernatural explanation. Eyewitness accounts are bad enough when folks aren’t under a lot of stress and they only get worse in the heat of the moment.

If you’re not watching “Your Bleeped Up Brain” then you should be.

your-bleeped-up-brain-square-logoI’m a big advocate for skeptical thinking. It’s one of the best tools you can have in life for determining truth claims and avoiding being scammed. We can’t be experts in everything so being skeptical is your first line of defense. To be really effective at it you need to understand how your brain works.

That’s where shows like Your Bleeped Up Brain come in handy. Each week they pick a theme — Lies, Superstition, Deception, Memory — and then they show you why your brain is susceptible to each one. Developed with the help of Richard Wiseman, the show delves not only into why your brain fucks up, but how it has had an impact on history on everything from world wars to belief in vampires. After each concept is explained they demonstrate by running experiments on the street with random folks passing by. It’s not only informative, but hugely entertaining.

Alas, there’s only four episodes in the series and they’ve already aired three of them. However, all is not lost as you can rent them through Amazon Prime or you can watch full episodes on the official site for free. I’m hopeful that it does well enough that they decide to pick it up for a full season later.

Debunking a Catholic “miracle” crucifix could land Indian skeptic in prison.

Catholics can be a tetchy bunch. Especially when you ruin their miracles. Over in Mumbai they were all excited about a miracle crucifix that was dripping water at a local church. The True Believers™ were convinced that it was of divine origin and were collecting it to drink thinking it was something more than ordinary water.

Turns out they were right, but not in the way they were thinking:

Indian skeptic faces 3 year prison sentence for explaining dripping crucifix | Secular News Daily.

Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association and Rationalist International, inspected the site and pinpointed the source of the water. A leaking toilet drain.

For explaining that the only “magic power” the water has is to transfer gastrointestinal infections and other disease, Edamaruku now faces up to three years in prison for “blasphemy”.

You’d think they’d appreciate being told that they were drinking toilet water, but instead they just get all pissy about it.

Apparently this was just the straw that broke the Catholic’s back because it turns out Edamaruku has been a bit of a thorn in their side, and a lot of other believer’s, for awhile now:

Accusing him of spreading “anti-Catholic venom” during televised debates on the crucifix, outraged religious groups in Mumbai have filed police complaints that could see Edamaruku jailed for up to three years under India’s blasphemy law.

Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum, lodged one of the complaints, claiming it was the result of Edamaruku’s “very obvious and stridently anti-Christian bias”.

Edamaruku, who has spent the last 30 years debunking India’s mystics and gurus who attract massive followings (and fortunes), welcomes the charges as an opportunity to challenge India’s blasphemy law.

With any luck Edamaruku will get the blasphemy law — a hold over from India’s days as a British colony — overturned.

New Mayan discovery shows they didn’t think world would end this year.

I’ve said before that the only thing you can conclude about the Mayan calendar stopping on December 21st, 2012 is that it is time to get a new Mayan calendar. Yet there are still plenty of people out there who cling to the idea that it’s significant in establishing when the world will end.

Now archaeologists have found new evidence that the Mayans certainly didn’t think the world would end at that time after discovering a mural in the ancient city Xultún which included dates stretching well past the end of the calendar everyone is so worked up about:

Unprecedented Maya Mural Found, Contradicts 2012 “Doomsday” Myth

One is a lunar table, and the other is a “ring number”—something previously known only from much later Maya books, where it was used as part of a backward calculation in establishing a base date for planetary cycles. Nearby is a sequence of numbered intervals corresponding to key calendrical and planetary cycles.

The calculations include dates some 7,000 years in the future, adding to evidence against the idea that the Maya thought the world would end in 2012—a modern myth inspired by an ancient calendar that depicts time starting over this year.

“We keep looking for endings,” expedition leader Saturno said in a statement. “The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.”

There you go. Clear evidence the Mayans thought the world would continue on past the end of the calendar they were using. Can we please put this stupidity behind us now?

Probably not, but it was worth a shot.

A comment on the latest drama in the atheist/skeptical community.

Considering how badly I got raked over the coals by various feminists for my last attempt at discussing issues involving male privilege, it’s probably a sign of diminished intelligence that I would step into that lion pit again, but here I go.

This time out it’s not about a web comic, but a shit-storm in the skeptical/atheist community that is commonly being referred to as “Elevatorgate.” It all started with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame when she did a video blog about an uncomfortable encounter in an elevator she had at a recent atheist conference. Here’s a transcript of the small portion of the video blog where she describes what happened:

“So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’

Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner…”

Apparently Rebecca had mentioned, either in discussion panels or in small group conversations, several times throughout the day how she often feels unwelcome at skeptical conferences like the one she was attending because invariably someone tries to hit on her. Given that, it’s understandable how she would find the actions of the unnamed male on the elevator to be creepy. Especially given the time of day it was, the location in which it took place, and her announcement just prior to getting on the elevator that she was going to bed. As is often the case when things like this are posted to the net, someone stood up to defend Creepy Elevator Guy (CEG from now on), and the beginnings of a shit-storm appeared on the horizon.

Now let me say this right up front: Sure, it’s entirely possible CEG had purely innocent intentions and wasn’t actually looking to get laid, but even with as clueless as I can be about issues of feminism I can still understand why the assumption would be that he was looking to get his dick wet. Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter and I’ve hung around with enough creepy guys in my time to know what sort of stupid ideas they get in their heads, but even I was thinking it was a little skeevy. Still, it appears Rebecca declined the offer and the fellow didn’t push it any further than that.

Anyway, so some folks stood up to defend CEG and it wasn’t long before the battle lines were drawn and the growing shit-storm started to pick up speed. Reading through the comments back and forth on a couple of different blogs can be very dispiriting because there doesn’t seem to be any room for an honest discussion. Sexual harassment and the threat of rape are, understandably, emotionally upsetting topics so it’s probably no surprise that so many were outraged that anyone would think to suggest that CEG hadn’t done anything wrong. Meanwhile the CEG defenders were flabbergasted that so many people in the “skeptical” movement would make such blatant assumptions about CEG’s intentions based on how little info Rebecca had given anyone to go on. There are a lot of blanket statements being thrown back and forth that I don’t think accurately describe the stances or either side and with that comes the inevitable name calling.

This is dispiriting because the topic of sexism in the atheist/skeptical “movement” is probably a good discussion to have, but the topic is so emotionally charged that it’s almost pointless to engage in it because both sides end up talking past each other instead of to each other. Despite the apparent blindness my white male privilege gives me to the injustices of the non-white-male population (as was repeatedly pointed out to me in comments on my aforementioned entry) I do see and acknowledge that sexism and, yes, even misogyny are a problem in the atheist/skeptical community. There’s definitely room for improvement that’ll never happen so long as shit-storms flare up every time we try to talk about it.

This one has gotten so big that even well-known “leaders” (I use the term lightly) such as Richard Dawkins and Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) have gotten caught up in it and have apparently disappointed legions of fans by saying things that others felt were illustrative of their acute male privilege problem. It doesn’t help that when a female blogger by the name of Stef McGraw wrote an entry critical of Rebecca Watson’s vlog the latter turned around and used her status as a keynote speaker at an event where the former was present to criticize the criticism, which turned the shit-storm into a fecal hurricane.

Here’s where I stick my foot in it and say, well, I can see valid points on both sides. Yeah, at best Creepy Elevator Guy didn’t think his proposition (innocent or otherwise) through very well and, at worst, he made someone feel uncomfortable and threatened, intentionally or not, and that’s not a good thing. At the same time, the feminists in the audience did some amazing knee-jerk assumption making that is probably out of place in a skeptical community. Understandable as it may be from an emotional standpoint, it’s still going to rub some people the wrong way. When you stamp your feet and demand that your position is the only correct one to have and anyone who disagrees is a misogynistic fuckwad, well, you’re not going to win a lot of converts to your cause. It comes across as ideological as any Fundie and that’ll hit a brick wall with a lot of people right from the get-go.

More importantly, these sorts of shit-storms make people reluctant to even discuss the issue because it always blows up into a shit-storm. I like to think I’m a decent guy who respects and appreciates women for more than their physical assets, but by some accounts I’m more of a problem than the openly misogynistic assholes because I can’t see how anti-woman I really am due to male privilege. It’s only through sheer stupidity on my part that I even attempt to comment on these issues because the smarter side of me says I should just stick to less potentially explosive issues such as clubbing baby seals. (For the record, I’m against it, but I’m probably still part of the problem due to my Privileged Human Species status blinding me to the true horrors of being a baby seal.)

So what am I trying to say here? I’m saying that I don’t think either side has handled the conversation particularly well and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Until we stop yelling past each other and twisting what the other side said to suit our arguments, well, this will just keep happening again and again with no real gains to be made. A lot of folks keep saying they want to have a conversation, but that involves some give and take and most folks seem only interested in the giving part.

I now await being told how clueless I am and how I just don’t get it.

“Pet psychics” now pass as legitimate columnists in supposedly serious newspapers.

Catherine Ferguson learning that this horse used to be Abraham Lincoln. What are the odds??

Not to suggest that crap like this is why newspapers are dying a slow death, but I’m sure it doesn’t help. It seems you can write into The Jersey Journal for a reading from a “Pet Psychic” who will reveal your pets’ innermost thoughts and dreams:

My 9-year-old cat Lotus lives the good life in that she sleeps and eats all day. My question for you is as follows: She tends to meow and twitch a lot when she sleeps. I’ve often wondered if she is reliving a previous life. Could this be the case?

By now I’m sure you can guess that the “Pet Psychic” is going to answer in the affirmative, but you’ll never guess what one of Lotus’ past lives was actually spent as:

Lotus tells me that you are very wise, in general. But, she is quick to add that you are way off base this time. She does admit to having a past life as a Roman general, but that’s not what she’s viewing when she sleeps.

Got that? Kitty used to be people and an important people she was! But that’s not what she’s dreaming about:

Instead, she is frequently living scenes of great conquest in animal form. She is a tiger, or sometimes another big cat, stalking then pouncing on her prey. She is proud to wind up with hard-to-catch, but delicious fresh food.

Well isn’t that just a stunning revelation. Well, no, it’s not.

Here’s the great thing about being a Pet Psychic: You can make up whatever bullshit story you want and the one person who could call bullshit on you… can’t because they’re an animal now. So go wild and claim whatever nonsense enters your head! Fluffy was once Cleopatra! Tickles used to be a famous 18th century German brewmaster!

Apparently the Pet Psychic in question is Catherine Ferguson who advertises herself as a psychic for pets and people as well as a Reiki master, and she has a PH.D (probably in advanced bullshitting). Her fees for readings run from $25 for one question via email or snail mail for approximately 15 minutes worth of a reading at a limit of 15o words to $90 for a 60-minute consultation in person or via phone, e-mail or snail mail. That’s roughly a buck and a half per minute which is a good rate of pay if you can manage to bullshit well enough to get it.

Here’s the thing I don’t get: Since when is this something worth putting in a newspaper? Granted, I haven’t subscribed to a paper in years so maybe I’m unaware of the sudden legitimacy of “psychics” as columnists, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would encourage people to take your paper seriously. Given that I just wrote a similar entry a week or so ago about a local news website, Ann, also putting woo in its pet advice column, I guess I must be totally out of touch with current trends in pet care. But at least in the latter example it wasn’t a full-time woo column like this one appears to be.

However, there is once again a silver lining in the comments to this article the first of which reads: “Oh, for #$%&’s sake.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Why it behooves you to have some computer literacy or at least some skepticism.

Pic of Charlie Brown.

I'm right there with you on that one, Chuck.

It seems you can’t even trust your friendly neighborhood PC repair technician anymore (unless it’s me):

Trevor Harwell, 20, a technician for Rezitech Inc., provided home computer services to users with Macintosh computers, said Fullerton Police Sgt. Andrew Goodrich.

Harwell went to elaborate lengths to ensure that he got lurid images, even convincing users through system messages that they needed to take their computers into steamy environments, such as near their showers, Goodrich said.

“While he had physical access to the computers, he would install a spyware-type application that allowed him remote access to the user’s computer and webcam,” Goodrich said.

“Once he had access, he would take photographs of the users, usually women,” Goodrich said. “Often, the female victims were undressed or changing clothes.”

[…] One message mimicked the appearance of a system message and read: “You should fix your internal sensor soon. If unsure what to do, try putting your laptop near hot steam for several minutes to clean the sensor.”

The message led many victims to take their laptops into the bathroom while taking a shower, Goodrich said.

via Computer repairman accused of taking nude pictures of women remotely –

It doesn’t take a genius to know that water, even in the form of steam, and computers don’t really mix well so if your computer is suddenly telling you it needs a steam bath you should probably be at least a little bit skeptical. I could make a snarky comment about the fact that these were Mac users so it’s probably no surprise that they were easily duped — after all, look at how much they’re being duped out of to buy a Mac in the first place — but I’m sure there are plenty of Windows users out there who wouldn’t stop to question their computer’s sudden desire for tropical atmospheres either.

It’s probably a sign of my tendency to over-estimate the intelligence of the average American that I was surprised such a ploy worked at all, let alone for as long as this news items suggests it did. The police are saying that they’ve recovered “hundreds of thousands” of images. Perhaps these folks should consider taking an introduction to computers class at the local college.