Individuals receiving paper benefits checks from the U.S. government have only a few months to sign up to receive payments electronically under the new paper-free system.
"Beginning March 1, all federal benefits will be paid electronically, either through direct deposit to a bank account or to a Direct Express Debit MasterCard," said Bobbie Shaffett, a family resources management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. "Consumers receiving paper Social Security checks should make the switch before January to ensure a smooth enrollment process."
Representatives at local banks and credit unions can help their customers set up direct deposit. New bank customers can open an account and sign up for direct deposit, too.
"Switching to electronic payments is free. Be sure to have on hand your most recent federal benefits check so you have the amount and the 12-digit federal benefit check number. You will also need to know your checking or savings account number and your bank or credit union's routing transit number. Your bank can help you with these numbers," Shaffett said.
Current check recipients who do not choose direct deposit can receive a Direct Express prepaid debit card. Learn more about the debit card at http://www.godirect.org. Representatives at the U.S. Treasury Electronic Payment Solution Center can answer questions and help federal benefit recipients sign up for direct deposit or the Direct Express card at (800) 333-1795 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.
"Those who do not make a choice between direct deposit and the debit card will receive a prepaid debit card," Shaffett said.
The prepaid debit card will be loaded each month on the usual payment day.
"One free cash withdrawal may be made on the card each month at an ATM in the United States, but the amount available may be limited by the ATM's daily cash withdrawal policy," she said. "Consumers may also get cash back with purchases made at places that accept the card."
Go Direct campaign director Walt Henderson said getting money electronically is safer, easier and more reliable than paper checks.
"In 2011, more than 440,000 Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks were reported lost or stolen. Electronic payments are sent straight from the Treasury Department to a bank or credit union account on payment day," Henderson said. "There's no need to wait for the mail to arrive or to make a special trip to cash or deposit a check."
Natural disasters, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita, showed the fragility of the paper check system, when tens of thousands of emergency payments had to be issued due to lost, delayed or destroyed checks.
"With electronic payments, money is on time, every time, no matter what nature brings," Henderson said.
Many people have already signed up to receive electronic payments via direct deposit or the Direct Express card and are satisfied with the switch, Henderson said.
Switching to electronic payments is estimated to save taxpayers $1 billion over 10 years.