gone phishing

NYC Census Scam Fighters Gearing Up for 2020 Battle

Manhattan Deputy Borough President Aldrin Bonilla in his office on Oct. 29.
Manhattan Deputy Borough President Aldrin Bonilla in his office on Oct. 29. Photo: Ben Fractenberg /THE CITY

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Aldrin Bonilla doesn’t want you to get scammed.

The Manhattan-based veteran census organizer fears you might during the first-ever digital census, come March. One of his big concerns: online phishers.

So, after observing  a census test-run in Providence, R.I., last year, Bonilla came home and scooped up a bunch of websites.

“I just started, for the heck of it, seeing if some of these high-risk, high-value URLs were available,” said the deputy Manhattan borough president. “And I saw that in New York, many of them were. And I just started buying them up.”

Bonilla, now the leader of the borough’s Complete Count Committee, is the proud owner of a dozen of the most popular census-related site names he could find, in both English and Spanish.

That includes getcountednyc.com and its Spanish match, hagasecontarnyc.com. He has census2020nyc.com and nyccensus2020.com. His most prized site is censusnyc.com, for which he was recently offered $2,000 through an online broker.

But it’s not for sale to any “nefarious actors,” he said.

“Ultimately, I think I want them all to go to some kind of credible, official site,” he said.

Bonilla’s scam-fighting tactic is just part of a huge array of efforts happening behind the scenes to protect New Yorkers ahead of Census 2020.

Digital Count Creates New Risks

Ian Hull, deputy regional director for the Census Bureau in New York, said there have been census-related cons for as long as there has been a census. But the new digital count, he noted, “does add additional layers of complexity.”

The Bureau is rolling out a team to fight misinformation about the once-a-decade count online and is working to shore up the security of census operations — including getting help from the Department of Homeland Security.

The 2020 Census marks the first time it will be done completely online.
The 2020 Census marks the first time it will be done completely online. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The 2020 Census will face “significant cybersecurity risks to its systems and data,” according to the independent Government Accountability Office, which is conducting an ongoing audit of the Bureau at Congress’ behest.

Cybersecurity risks could mean anything from politically motivated hacks to run-of-the-mill scamming of census takers, according to GAO’s Nick Marinos. On top of that, the Bureau has to make a huge data management system run smoothly and function properly — with a constitutionally mandated deadline: March 2020.

“You’ve got a lot of innovation and extremely firm dates,” he said, adding that “the federal government more broadly hasn’t had a very good track record when it comes to delivering on big IT projects on time.”

‘The Digital Divide Is Real’

In New York, the challenges of the new digital census may make a difficult task even harder.

The city is full of “hard to count” census tracts, which historically include low-income people and non-English speakers. Some advocates say fears spurred by the Trump administration’s immigrant policies could make some newcomers to the city reluctant to participate.

According to a recent report by The New School’s Digital Equity Lab, those communities often overlap with “digitally unconnected groups” who do not have access to the Internet or are not digitally literate.

“The digital divide is real,” said Esmeralda Simmons, founder of the Center for Law & Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and a member of the New York State Complete Count Commission. “Even though people have smartphones, many people do not use the Internet on their phone or maybe don’t even have the Internet on their phone.”

Already this year, many New Yorkers have called her office to report census-related cons. Nearly all of the callers were senior citizens, she said.

“It’s already started,” she said.

For now, the attempted census scams she’s been told about were conducted by phone or by mail. But Simmons is sure she’ll start hearing about digital trickery soon.

New Yorkers who are uncertain about completing the digital census or unable to access the Internet could go to a “pop-up center” — a church, community center or school equipped with a secure device for submitting a census form, Simmons said.

That’s exactly what many nonprofits, social services groups and community centers are gearing up to do all across the city.

Julie Menin, the director of New York City’s Census 2020 team, said the city is working with neighborhood groups to help get an accurate count.

Libraries Get Involved

One of the main hubs, which collectively received a $1.4 million city grant for census work, will be the three city library systems: the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library.

In Brooklyn, the library system plans to hire 10 part-time staff to work solely on census outreach. Libraries will likely have dedicated census-taking stations for patrons to fill out their forms and staff will be trained to handle questions, said Amy Mikel, the BPL’s civic engagement manager.

A huge part of the task, she said, is educating the public about the libraries’ “substantial” existing security infrastructure designed to keep patrons’ information safe.

City libraries are getting involved in the 2020 count.
City libraries are getting involved in the 2020 count. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

One of the top fears related to the census is distrust in the confidentiality of personal data, according to the Census Bureau’s own research. More than half of respondents to a Bureau survey said they were somewhat, very or extremely concerned about the 2020 Census keeping answers confidential.

“If the public misconception about it is there, then we need to do everything we can to teach people about it, and help them talk through it and help them learn about that fear,” Mikel said.

Menin said in a statement that she is “committed to ensuring New Yorkers’ information is safe and secure.”

At a City Council hearing on Tuesday, she added what many New Yorkers may forget: If you think taking the census online is too risky, or not your style, you can fill it out by phone.

Hull noted that paper forms will eventually be mailed by mid-April to any household that does not respond online. And there’s a good way to tell if what you receive is not from the federal government.

“The Census Bureau will never ask for information about bank accounts. We will never ask for Social Security numbers. We will never ask for political affiliations. And we will never ask for money,” he said. “If people start to see that or hear about that … rest assured, it is a scam.”

For Bonilla, his primary concern is con artists — which is why he spent about $400 snapping up URLs.

“There are people that are going to be using this disinformation to suppress the count, much in the same way they may use it to suppress the vote,” he said. “I might be a little bit paranoid … but it’s not unreasonable.”

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