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A Tale of Two Thefts: How Safe is Your Social Security Check?

A Tale of Two Thefts: Theft #1
I have been helping my aging parents with their finances for years. I pay the bills and watch over their accounts. They have given me power of attorney and I am their trustee.  A few years ago, someone got their credit card number and was charging up items in another state. The credit card company immediately called me. Together we verified that these were fraudulent charges. The charges did not go through and the credit card company assisted me to get my senior parents a new card in a few days. I felt supported throughout the process and relieved that they noticed so quickly.
Theft #2
Fast forward to last night. As I went through the mail, I found 2 letters from the Social Security Administration.  My parents’ checks have been protected by direct deposit for years. Until now. Someone has stolen my mother’s social security number and opened an online SSA account. The thief then requested to transfer my mother’s social security check by direct deposit to a different financial institution. I immediately called the number given on the notice to report if this is incorrect. This being a Saturday night, a recording informed me that the office was closed and will re-open on Monday morning. I jumped online on the SSA website. I wanted to alert SSA that a fraud was taking place ASAP. But SSA made clear that due to the volume of messages, it would be at least a few days before I would get a response.
We all hear of social security phone scams and warn seniors not to give anyone their valuable numbers to anyone over the phone. Many of us can remember the days when we encouraged seniors to change over to direct deposit. There were so many checks being stolen out of mailboxes. Sadly, this still happens for many who cannot afford to have a bank account. But, it’s been a long time since I even thought about my mother’s actual check as it has been safely direct deposited by the Treasury Department for years. I didn’t understand that the internet could lead to endangering the direct deposit.
Two Financial Frauds, Two very Different Responses
I can’t help but compare the two experiences. Credit card companies have a lot invested in reducing false charges and protecting their customers. Credit card theft creates costs shared by the companies, their customers and vendors. These companies have found that it is good for business to have 24/7 employees available to help customers in this stressful predicament. Private companies and government are obviously different entities. But, consider who social security checks are for: the elderly and the disabled. People who are already targeted by criminals and in many cases, more vulnerable to scams.
Wouldn’t it also be in the best interest of the SSA, the Treasury Department and social security beneficiaries to have a more sensitive and pro-active system for dealing with theft? There are clearly efficient strategies already in place in the private sector. I think of older people with hearing or visual problems, limited resources and other issues dealing with the message that I listened to last night. Victims of crime in any setting need support.  But, this felt more like: “No one is home. Good luck and try another time.”
Getting Help takes a Long Time
Now it is Monday. I spent 2 hours and 2 phone calls with the Social Security Administration. They could not halt the check being deposited into a thief’s account, that could only be done in person. I raced to the local SSA office. I knew there would be a long line.  In another 2 hours, I was able to get a halt on the check. I found out, strangely, that the thief’s designated account had been closed. If there wasn’t a big glass service window dividing us, I would have hugged the wonderful, wise, patient and supportive SSA clerk.
In spite of the waiting and paid parking, SSA is better face to face than on the national phone system. I still think that the system is clumsy. It is not designed to catch thieves in a timely way which is essential in this age of hackers and internet phishing. Innocent senior citizens have much to lose and much stress to gain.  I have embarked on the reporting of identity theft and trying to halt any further damage. I can only hope that the process will not be as bad as I expect. But, I’m not holding my breath.
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