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Debit card offers a safer way to receive payments

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

The check may no longer be "in the mail" for thousands of Chicago area recipients of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. They can now choose to receive their monthly benefits electronically through a new Direct Express Debit MasterCarddebit card account, which the Treasury Department is announcing today.

The new payment card will be safer and easier -- especially if you don't have a bank account. Your benefit amount will be deposited electronically into your Direct Express account every month, and you can use your debit card to get cash or make purchases.

The card can be used with a secure personal identification number to get cash at any ATM among the nearly 50,000 in the network that accepts a debit MasterCard. The first withdrawal each month is free, then you pay a 90-cent fee for each additional withdrawal. You can also get cash at no cost when you use your debit card to pay for purchases at any outlet that accepts MasterCard. There is no limit on free cash withdrawals made in conjunction with a purchase. And you can't "overdraw" your card because the limit on withdrawals is the benefit deposited into your card account. The DirectExpress card also can be used to pay bills by phone and online.

The Treasury Department sends out more than 10.3 million paper checks every month to Social Security and SSI recipients -- despite the fact that 80 percent of beneficiaries have their benefits deposited directly to their bank accounts. In Chicago, more than 243,000 paper checks are issued each month.

This new debit card program is aimed at the estimated 3.9 million recipients who don't have bank accounts. Most of them pay huge fees to cash their checks. There will be no annual or monthly fee for the Direct Express card.

The card has other helpful features. You can arrange to be notified by phone, e-mail or text message when your card is running low on cash. You set the notification level, perhaps when you get down to $50 or $100. And you can check your account online to track where you have made purchases or withdrawn cash. For an extra 75 cents a month, a paper statement of your account activity will be mailed to you.

The DirectExpress debit card is far more secure than cash or paper checks. Last year, more than 700,000 Social Security or SSI paper checks were reported lost or stolen. Payments have to be re-issued, leaving many seniors waiting for their money. You have zero liability if your DirectExpress card is stolen and you report the loss promptly. One free replacement card is provided every year.

A 24-hour toll-free help line provided by Comerica Bank network, which won the bid to provide this service, will take care of all questions or reports of stolen cards.

"We're very excited because we already have over 50,000 people that have enrolled since we started marketing earlier this spring," said Judith Tillman, commissioner of financial management services of the Treasury Department. "And we're hoping that we will get all of our 3.9 million unbanked SSA and SSI recipients to sign up for this card."

If you know a Social Security or SSI recipient who is still receiving paper checks, please pass on this information. It will save them money -- and keep them safer. And that's The Savage Truth.

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