What U.S. Residents Should Know About the U.S. Census and ID Theft


Last Updated: July 8th, 2020

Guest Post by Kayla Matthews

As the 2020 census draws nearer, you may be concerned about identity theft. The U.S. census only happens once every ten years, so you may not be used to what it looks like or how it works. This uncertainty can be stressful, and the presence of scammers doesn't help.

The census is a golden opportunity for identity thieves. People across the nation are expecting someone to ask them personal questions, making it easy to get sensitive information just by asking. These scammers may make you wary of participating in the real census.

Even with scams aside, the idea of a census can be intimidating. Why is the government asking you questions, and what are they going to do with the answers? Giving away information is uncomfortable, even if it's to an official source.

To help settle these fears, here's how the census works, what it won't do and how to avoid a census identity theft scam.

How the census works

The good news is you have nothing to fear from the real census. The questionnaire won't ask about anything too sensitive, and the government cannot release any of your information by law. 

The Census Bureau will mail out invitations for the census in March. This survey seeks to determine how many people live in the United States and generate statistics about them, such as homeownership percentage. All of the information you give will relate to this goal.

The questionnaire will ask things like how many people live in your home and their ethnicities. It will not ask if you or anyone in your household is a citizen or ask for financial information. To prepare, or to help spot a fake, you can even see the census questions ahead of time.

If you haven't responded to the questionnaire by May, census takers will come to your home to make sure you participate. If you're not there when they arrive, they'll leave a notice on your door with a number you can call to set up a visit.

Fake census surveys

Unfortunately, many people try to take advantage of others by posing as Census Bureau officials. These scams come in many forms, from phone calls to in-person visits. While these fake surveys are potentially dangerous, you can easily spot them.

The population count (what most people mean when they refer to the census) occurs just once a decade. But the Census Bureau does send out other surveys regularly. These polls, like the American Community Survey (ACS), may seem suspicious, but there are ways you can be sure of their validity.

Census takers do not need to worry about legal implications of revealing their citizenship status or previous criminal penalties to the government, either. The survey doesn’t ask about things like past criminal history or citizenship. A fake survey, however, might have these questions.

While official inquiries try only to get a better picture of the population, scams try to access sensitive information for criminal activity.

How to spot a scam

You can spot if a census or other survey is fake or not in a few ways. The easiest method to figure out if someone is trying to scam you is by looking at the questions they ask. 

No official government survey will ever ask for the following:

  • Your full social security number
  • Donations or other forms of money
  • Your mother's maiden name
  • Anything on behalf of a political party
  • Your bank account or credit card numbers

If you see any questions like these in a poll, it's a fake. If a person comes to your door to conduct the study, you can ask for identification. If their badge does not convince you, you can call your local Census Bureau Regional Office to verify their identity.

If you get a questionnaire in the mail, check the return address. Anything from the Census Bureau will come from Jeffersonville, Indiana.

What to do if you think you've found a fake

If you think you've come across a census scam, the first thing to do is not answer any of the questions. It always helps to be sure, so call a Regional Office or a National Processing Center to verify whether or not it's a real government survey.

You can report fraud by calling 800-923-8282 or by going online at FTC.gov/complaint. If you get a suspicious email, you can forward it to [email protected] and then delete it.

Lots of scams are out there. Yet if you know what to look for, there's nothing to worry about. With the right knowledge, you have nothing to fear from the 2020 Census.

Kayla Matthews, a tech and security journalist, has written articles for sites including WIRED, Information Age, Security Boulevard, and the National Cyber Security Alliance. To see more of her work, follow her on Twitter @KaylaEMatthews or check out her tech blog, Productivity Bytes.

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