Ever since the federal government said it would stop sending paper checks in favor of using direct deposit, scam artists have been hard at work. With a March 1 deadline for the switch coming, expect crooks to ramp up their illegal efforts.
Scammers call, write or email to phish for personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers. Once they have enough information, the crooks can claim a false identity and set up an account to receive federal payments.
The U.S. Treasury Department is getting the word out that the switch to direct deposit will be complete as of March 1. Everyone who receives Social Security, veterans’ or other federal benefits should be aware that many such payments will no longer be made by paper checks.
There are two basic reasons for the change, which has been under way for a number of months. Right now, about 93 percent of all federal payments are directly deposited. The Eastern Area Agency on Aging, or EAAA, estimates 3,200 recipients in Hancock, Washington, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties are still receiving paper checks. Fully implementing direct deposit is expected to save the government $4.6 million a month, or a billion dollars over the next decade.
It’s also intended to make those federal payments more secure. Federal statistics show that more than 440,000 Social Security checks were stolen in 2011, and $70 million in checks were fraudulently endorsed. Direct deposit is expected to cut those figures dramatically.
Dyan Walsh, EAAA’s director of community services, says about 300,000 Mainers use direct deposit. “It’s a safety issue,” Walsh says, “to reduce the chance of anything happening to those payments.”
However, there are still risks. Those scammers are already on the phones, claiming to be government officials and asking people for the information that will help the crooks steal their money. Be aware: Governments don’t call or email and ask personal questions; if someone calls you claiming to be a federal official and wants personal information, just hang up.
Instead, you should take the initiative to make sure your payments are secure. The Treasury Department has launched the Go Direct campaign, explaining and promoting the change at www.GoDirect.org. Information is also available through a toll-free call to 800-333-1795, from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. Eastern time, Monday-Friday.
You can arrange for direct deposit to your bank or credit union account, either by phone or online. Christopher Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association, says people in the industry are ready to answer customers’ concerns, especially about safety.
“It’s remarkable how well [direct deposit] works,” he told me.
Visit your bank or credit union and ask questions directly, if using the phone or email makes you uneasy.
You may opt to receive your payments by way of what’s called Direct Express Debit Mastercard. There’s no charge to sign up for the prepaid debit card, and most services are free. Those who have not arranged direct deposit by March 1 will receive their payments this way.
When making the switch you’ll need your Social Security number or claim number; 12-digit federal benefit check number; amount of most recent federal benefit check; financial institution’s routing transit number, and your account number and type — checking or savings. Work with a trusted friend or relative if you need help.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.