Thursday January 10, 2013

Each month in Vermont, more than 110,000 Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks are sent via the U.S. Postal Service. Across the country, more than 5 million paper checks are mailed to federal beneficiaries each month.

In total, the Treasury Department issues more than 130 million checks each year. This includes Social Security, SSI, Office of Personnel Management and Veterans Administration checks.

But the days of receiving a check in the mail for federal benefits is quickly coming to an end.

The Treasury Department is phasing out paper check payments and requiring federal benefit recipients to get their money electronically, effective March 1.

Payments will be made by direct deposit to a bank or credit union account or to a Direct Express Debit MasterCard card account. The Direct Express card, which is a no- or low-cost prepaid debit card, can be used to pay bills, buy things and get cash back.

One reason why the Department of the Treasury is doing so is because more than 540,000 Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks were reported lost or stolen in 2010 alone. Another 50,000 checks issued by the Treasury Department that same year were altered or fraudulently endorsed.

Another reason to phase out paper checks is it will save us all money. By switching 100 percent to electronic payments, it is estimated the government will save $1 billion over the next 10 years.

The Treasury Department will grant exceptions to the rule only in rare circumstances.

Automatic waivers are granted to people born on or before May 1, 1921. Check recipients living in remote areas without sufficient banking infrastructure may apply for a waiver, as well as check recipients for whom electronic payments would impose a hardship due to a mental impairment. Waiver applications can be requested by calling 800-333-1795.

While switching to electronic payments is a good thing, this is also a prime time for scammers to get personal information from those who receive federal benefits.

It’s good to practice caution whenever you receive a phone call from someone asking for personal information, especially now with the crunch coming down on switching over to electronic payments.

Be wary of anyone who calls or e-mails saying they are from a government agency and asks for personal information.

Never give out your Social Security Number or other personal information to anyone unless you are the one who initiates contact and you know who you are dealing with.

Regularly check your bank or credit union account or Direct Express card account activity to ensure there are no unexpected transactions.

You can sign up for direct deposit or a Direct Express card by contacting the U.S. Treasury Electronic Payment Solution Center at 800-333-1795. You may also sign up for direct deposit online at www.godirect.gov/gpw/index.gd.