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Paperless switch rubs seniors the wrong way

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Ready or not, millions of America's seniors are being pushed into the age of digital banking. Starting March 1, in a cost-cutting move by the Treasury, most Social Security checks will no longer arrive by mail.

Like IRS forms and U.S. savings bonds before them, it's bye-bye paper. That means about 5 million Americans who still get a Social Security, disability or other federal benefit check in their mailbox must switch to electronic payments: either direct deposit into their bank account or onto a Treasury-issued debit card.

For those unaccustomed to ATMs or online banking, the prospect is a bit unnerving.

“Older seniors like having that check in their hand,” said Patricia Beal, executive director of the Senior Center of Elk Grove, Calif. “As we age, we lose control over a lot of things and this is just one more.”

And it's got some folks riled up.

Mike Clement, a Michigan resident who after reading online that I wanted to talk with those who prefer paper checks, emailed and called to say that he and his elderly mother are “hopping mad” that she is being forced to switch to electronic payment.

“It really should be a matter of personal choice,” Clement said. “Unfortunately, the feds seem not to care a whit about personal preference.”

There's even organized opposition to the switch. A group called Consumers for Paper Options, based in Washington, has been fighting the paper-free mandate for more than a year.

Many Social Security recipients “are unbanked, while others are simply uncomfortable in the digital world,” said John Runyan, president of the group.

In testimony to a House committee last year, he said it's unfair to force seniors to navigate “a new and potentially confusing world full of PINs, ATMs and online statements.” He also pointed to instances of direct-deposit-related fraud with Social Security payments.

The Treasury Department, however, says that, unlike paper checks that can be lost or stolen, electronic payments are easily traced and quickly restored in the rare instance of fraud.

The Treasury's paperless campaign is primarily billed as a federal cost-cutter, saving an estimated $1 billion in check-processing and mailing costs over 10 years. It also is touted to be safer, easier and more convenient.

About 65 million federal benefit recipients — 93 percent — receive their payments electronically. That includes Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, veterans' and railroad retirement, all of which are subject to the switch.

California has the largest number of residents — 399,000 — receiving a benefit check by mail, followed by New York (308,000), Texas (300,000), Florida (196,000) and Pennsylvania (186,000).

There are some exemptions to the paperless requirement, such as those who are 91 or older. Those who ignore or miss the mandatory deadline won't get cut off or face penalties.

Certainly, not every senior is upset by the change.

At 82, Sacramento, Calif., resident Frances Comstock said she has had her monthly Social Security check automatically deposited into her bank account for nearly 20 years.

“I was so afraid someone would steal it from my mailbox. (With direct deposit,) I didn't have to go the bank to cash my check. You always know your money is there. It's peace of mind,” said Comstock, a former Aerojet telephone operator.

She predicts that once paperless payments go into effect for all Americans on March 1, “They're going to kick themselves: ‘Why didn't I do this before?' ”

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