An intensive public relations campaign by the U.S. Treasury Department seems to have achieved its goal — at least in Baker County.
The campaign is aimed at getting everyone who receives a monthly federal benefit payment to convert from a paper check to an electronic payment system by March 1.
According to a straw poll of about 40 seniors gathered for lunch at Community Connection Wednesday, most have already signed up for automatic deposit, according to Mary Jo Carpenter. She’s the Baker County manager for Community Connection, which sponsors the lunchtime meals.
Maybe part of that is because of the Treasury Department’s efforts.
“They’ve been well-notified,” Carpenter said of the seniors who frequent Community Connection. “The Treasury Department is doing quite the notification campaign.
“They’ve gotten quite a lot of notice that this was coming down the pike."
But a Thursday visit with senior lunch-goers showed that most were drawn to direct deposit by the convenience and safety ensured by seeing that their money goes straight to the bank.
Edward Dove, 88, said he used to enjoy actually seeing his check when it arrived at his home, until an incident that happened about 17 years ago. He and his wife had traveled to Arizona, and a friend was picking up their mail while they were away, he recalled. When they returned home, Dove said his Social Security check was missing.
Or at least he thought it was.
Turns out, the check was stuck between the pages of a magazine included in the mail his friend had gathered.
That near miss convinced him to sign up for direct deposit. He says he’d still like to see the check for himself, but he’s happier knowing the money is in the bank and not misplaced in a bundle of mail.
Marda Bloom, who lives on Hudson Road northeast of Baker City, said she appreciates not having to come to town when her check arrives. The 69-year-old says she’s been on the direct-deposit system since the beginning of her retirement six years ago.
Likewise with Dick D’Ewart of Durkee, who’ll turn 77 in February.
“That was just the way to do it,” he said. “I just put it in and it’s spent.”
So the new requirement for everyone to receive benefits electronically will make no difference to him, he said.
“It’s no big change, they’ll just keep taking more out of it,” he said laughing. “You know how they do.”
Anyone who isn’t already signed up is being urged to beat the last-minute rush by making the changover to direct deposit before the March 1 deadline. The sign-up is “fast, free and easy,” according to the Treasury Department.
Those who have not yet made the change can do so by calling the U.S. Treasury Electronic Payment Solution Center at 1-800-333-1795 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.
The Treasury Department advises recipients who would like to sign up online to go to www.GoDirect.org or to visit their local bank or credit union.
Carpenter said a computer and individual instruction is available at Community Connection, 2810 Cedar St., for those people who would like to visit the website and do not have computers at home.
The Treasury Department has recruited more than 1,800 organizations, including public libraries, to help get the word out.
The Baker County Public Library, 2400 Resort St., has posted fliers announcing the change, said Perry Stokes, library director. Computers also are available at the library for those who would like to access the informational websites.
Those who do not have bank accounts or who would prefer a prepaid debit card may switch to the Direct Express card. Card users will have money posted to the card account on each monthly payment day.
“Cardholders can make purchases and get cash back with purchases at no charge anywhere Debit MasterCard is accepted,” the Treasury Department campaign states.
The card requires no sign-up fees, overdraft fees or monthly fees. There might, however, be some fees for optional services.
For information on card fees and features, visit www.GoDirect.org.
People who do not choose an electronic payment option by March 1 might be issued a Direct Express card.
The change is being made to provide “a safer, easier and more reliable” system for paying benefit recipients, according to the Treasury Department.
About 93 percent of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments already are being made electronically. A savings of $1 billion over the next 10 years is expected once all paper checks are eliminated, the department stated.
In 2010, more than 540,000 Social Security and SSI checks were reported lost or stolen.
Although the electronic payments are more secure, benefit recipients are advised to be vigilant in protecting their money from identity thieves and other criminals.
The Treasury Department offers these tips:
• Be careful of anyone who calls, texts or emails asking for personal information.
• Protect personal information. Do not give out your Social Security number or account information to anyone unless you are the one who has contacted them.
• Check your bank or credit union account or Direct Express card account often to make sure that all account activity is yours.