Tackling online accounts for Social Security a pain

The Social Security Administration last year stopped mailing annual estimated-benefit statements to workers 25 and older, a service it began in 1999

Feb 24, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

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Technology is maddening at times. Just ask Bob Taylor, a financial planner from Chicago who works with clients who are in or nearing retirement. After reading my Jan. 28 column, “Social Security goes fully paperless,” he decided to set up his own online account so that he could instruct clients.

That is when the fun began.

The Social Security Administration last year stopped mailing annual estimated-benefit statements to workers 25 and older, a service it began in 1999. The switch from paper to digital delivery saves the federal government about $70 million a year in printing and postage.

The digital version is identical to the original paper version, including a personal year-by-year earnings history and estimates for reduced retirement benefits at 62, full benefits at normal retirement age (currently 66 for those born from 1943 through 1954) and maximum benefits at 70. The statements also include estimates for disability and survivor benefits.

People 18 and older now can sign up for an online Social Security account at socialsecurity.gov/ mystatement as long as they have a Social Security number, a valid e-mail address and a U.S. mailing address. At least that is how it is supposed to work.

As part of the SSA's effort to thwart identity theft, individuals are asked questions only they are likely to be able to answer — such as the names of former employers or previous home addresses — with information on file with Social Security and in their credit report.

“Halfway through this process, the system stopped and informed me that I could not be verified and that I would be denied access to the system,” Mr. Taylor wrote to me in an e-mail. “I called the number provided, and after going through a maddening phone system and a long wait, I spoke to a person that verified that I had not answered the questions correctly (even though I did), and he "reset' the system to allow me to try again. I got kicked out again.”

I put Mr. Taylor in touch with someone at the SSA and Experian Information Solutions Inc., a private company that oversees the online verification project. It turned out that because Mr. Taylor uses an identity protection service through the credit bureau Equifax that restricts access to his records, he can't use Social Security's online service.

“The level of security to access information online needs to be as secure as possible,” said Salvatore Guariano, vice president of Experian's public-sector business.

“The credit freeze on the individual's account raised a flag at our end,” he said. “This proves that the system works.”

To be fair, the SSA website warns that if you have a credit freeze on your credit report, you may not be able to use the system. The same restriction applies if you want to use the SSA online tool that provides retirement benefit estimates (socialsecurity.gov/ estimator) but not a personalized earnings history.

The solution? If you have a credit freeze or fraud alert placed on your credit report, you can contact the credit bureau and request that it temporarily lift the restrictions on your records so that you can create an online account with the SSA.

As for Mr. Taylor, he eventually went to his local Social Security office, where he was given instructions for setting up an online account. He then went home, logged on and was able to sign up successfully.

BIGGER CHALLENGE

A bigger challenge to the online-records system is that only a small percentage of workers and beneficiaries will attempt to access their information online. Four million people have created online Social Security accounts since the service was launched last May.

More than 160 million workers are included in the Social Security program, and more than 56 million people receive retirement, survivor and disability benefits.

“We didn't envision in the first year or two being able to accommodate the entire user population,” said Keir Breitenfeld, Experian's vice president of fraud and identity solutions. “We're happy thus far with the number of people who have gone through the process online, but we can accommodate much higher volume.”

Mr. Taylor isn't so optimistic.

“As more and more people use some kind of identity protection as the years go on, this will create a problem for SSA,” he wrote. “I can't wait until these folks are in charge of my health care.”

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