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Runyan: Social Security Paperless Payments Will Disadvantage Millions

Congress needs to act now to stop the Social Security Administration from driving millions of disabled and elderly Americans over a whole new fiscal cliff that would make it difficult for many to access their benefits while exposing them to rising cyber-fraud.

Lawmakers must step in to divert the U.S. Treasury from implementing a unilateral mandate forcing every Social Security recipient to receive federal benefits electronically by March 1, 2013. While this directive may seem harmless, the reality is that it creates potential risks for millions of disabled and elderly Americans who simply aren’t ready, or equipped, for electronic banking.

About 6 million seniors and disabled Americans still receive paper Social Security checks, despite having been directed to switch to electronic payments. Many of these recipients are “unbanked,” with no bank account whatsoever, while others are simply uncomfortable in the digital world. They need to receive benefits checks on paper — just as they’ve received them for years — so they can pay rent, buy food and shop for essentials.

If Congress does not swiftly introduce legislation to block the Treasury’s ill-conceived mandate, then 6 million of our most vulnerable citizens will be forced into a system that many are not equipped to handle — a system that exposes them to rising fraud while transferring the costs directly to them.

There are many reasons why seniors are resisting electronic banking and should not be forced to forego traditional checks. According to the FDIC, 10 million American households — one in 12 —are completely unbanked, rendering them unable to participate in any direct deposit program. And believe it or not, the percentage of unbanked individuals is on the rise — especially among seniors.

The Treasury says it will issue prepaid debit cards for beneficiaries without bank accounts, but for seniors and disabled Americans who have no experience with electronic transactions, debit cards are no compromise. According to the Department of Commerce, 45 percent of seniors don’t own a computer, while millions of others have never used an ATM card. Unless Congress steps in, these seniors — many of whom have limited banking experience or none at all — will be forced to navigate a new and potentially confusing world full of PINs, ATMs and online statements.

Also concerning is the fact that the prepaid debit cards being advanced by the Treasury carry steep fees and are loosely regulated. These debit cards essentially levy a new tax on those who can least afford it by charging 90 cents for each cash withdrawal, as well as other steep transactional fees.

While the Treasury Department grants waivers for beneficiaries age 91 and older, officials acknowledge that waivers for other beneficiaries are rare. It is not rare, however, to find a senior who is uncomfortable with the switch. In fact, more than 72,000 people called the Treasury about obtaining a waiver between May 2011 and July 2012. Fewer than 300 of those waiver requests were actually granted.

And while direct deposit works well for many Americans, a growing number of seniors who receive their Social Security benefits electronically are victimized by fraud. According to the inspector general of the Social Security Administration, more than 19,000 reports of direct-deposit-related fraud have been filed since the beginning of August, and the office continues to receive an average of 50 reports each day.

By pushing uneasy seniors into digital banking, we could be paving the way for more fraud — and wasted taxpayer dollars. More importantly, the switch could mean a lapse in benefits — a devastating consequence for those living paycheck to paycheck.

Congress should act now with legislation directing the U.S. Treasury to continue providing paper checks to beneficiaries who need them. We need to equip seniors and disabled Americans with a choice that works for them instead of forcing them into a system that’s convenient for the government.

John Runyan is executive director of Consumers for Paper Options in Washington, D.C.

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