April 22, 2019
Checking your official Social Security statement is important to make sure your future retirement benefits reflect what you’ve earned over your working life. Yet a new report suggests that many Americans aren’t doing that.
In recent years, the Social Security Administration has greatly curtailed the number of statements it mails, encouraging workers to check the information online instead.
But fewer than half the 39 million people registered for electronic “my Social Security” accounts as of Sept. 30 had checked their earnings statements in the previous 12 months, according to a recent audit report from the agency’s inspector general.
Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action, an advocacy group, said the findings suggested that the shift to digital statements had left many people without “meaningful access” to their earnings history and that the government was falling short of its obligation under the Social Security Act to keep workers informed.
That’s a problem, she said, because the statements are a crucial retirement planning tool for many Americans. She said she would prefer that the agency gave people the option of receiving paper statements periodically, as it did in the past, rather than force them online.
The administration’s policy on mailing statements has varied over time.
Two decades ago, most workers 25 or older received a paper statement each year around their birthday. The document provides a summary of annual earnings. It also shows the size of the check to expect each month in retirement, and how the amount may vary depending on what year the recipient decides to stop working.
Under current policy, adopted in 2017, the administration automatically mails statements only to people over age 60 who aren’t yet getting benefits and who haven’t set up digital accounts. (Paper statements are still available to anyone on request, by submitting a special form. More than 139,000 people got statements that way in the 2018 fiscal year, the report said.)
The move away from mailing statements has saved the government money, the report noted. Last fiscal year, the agency spent less than $8 million to print and mail statements, down from $65 million eight years earlier.
The agency mailed just under 15 million statements last fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, the report said. When that total is combined with the number of people who checked their statements online, it appears that fewer than 35 million people saw their earnings statements.
Back in the 2010 fiscal year, the agency automatically mailed out 155 million statements, the report noted.
“That’s a huge discrepancy,” Ms. Sherry said.
Asked whether the report raised concerns, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, Darren Lutz, said in an email that the shift to online statements was rooted in tighter agency budgets, along with an increasing preference by the public for doing business online. Currently, he said, 42 million people have “instant” access to statements through their online accounts.
The agency encourages everyone to create an online account, Mr. Lutz said, and suggests that people review their statements annually to verify that earnings posted are correct, to make sure their benefit estimates are accurate.
There’s also a reason besides retirement planning to review your Social Security statements: to check for signs of identity theft. Doing so is good “identity hygiene,” like checking your credit reports, said Charity Lacey, a spokeswoman for the Identity Theft Resource Center.
If, for instance, your reported earnings are much higher than your own records, it may be a red flag that someone is fraudulently using your Social Security number, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the nonprofit group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
Here are some questions and answers about checking your Social Security statement:
How do I create a “my Social Security” account?
You can register on the Social Security Administration website. You’ll be asked to enter your Social Security number and birth date, and you’ll also be asked a series of questions — similar to those asked when you check your credit report online — to help confirm your identity. Then you’ll receive a code by either email or text, which you enter online to complete the process. If, for some reason, you can’t set up the account online, you can visit a Social Security office. After you establish an account, you’ll get an annual email reminder to log on and review your statement.
If you have a security freeze on your credit report to help ward off fraud, you must lift it temporarily to set up your online Social Security account. Specifically, you’ll need to thaw the freeze at Equifax , the company the administration currently uses to help verify users’ identities.
If I can get paper statements, why should I get an online Social Security account?
Creating a digital account is a good idea, if only to prevent someone else from fraudulently creating one first and using it to steal benefit payments in the future, said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director with the United States Public Interest Research Groups. Given the number of security breaches in recent years, it’s possible someone may be able to illegally obtain your sensitive personal information, like your Social Security number, and use it to set up an account in your name.
Mr. Litt said it was wise to establish an account and then check it periodically for anything that looked suspicious. “You should sign up for your online Social Security account,” he said, “before fraudsters try to claim it and redirect your benefits to their bank account.”
Mr. Litt also recommends adding optional extra security, like getting a code sent in a letter via the mail. If you prefer, you can also block all electronic access to your account.
What if information on my statement seems incorrect?
Contact the agency at 1-800-772-1213, and have your tax return or W-2 income form handy.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .