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Applying for Social Security Now Easier Using Phone or Internet

Benefits: The agency moves to make the process simpler and faster for millions of soon-to-be retirees. But it won't be completely automated.

November 04, 2000|KATHY M. KRISTOF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Social Security Administration, bowing to the increasing influence and convenience of the electronic world, is now allowing prospective retirees to apply for benefits via computer or telephone.

The move won't completely automate the process of applying for Social Security benefits or eliminate the need in all cases for applicants to visit their local Social Security office. But agency officials see the new initiative as a key part of their continuing effort to streamline and automate Social Security operations in preparation for the onslaught of retiring baby boomers.

To use the new services, people who are nearing age 62 and plan to retire within four months can sign on to the agency's Web site (http://www.ssa.gov) to apply for retirement benefits online. Those without Web access can call the administration's national hotline at (800) 772-1213 to apply.

"You can do this on your own time, from your own home," said William A. Halter, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. "Our desire is to make this as convenient as possible for our customers."

Last year, the Social Security Administration started sending out detailed earnings and benefit statements to all workers older than 25. This year, everyone over age 55 will receive an additional insert with his or her Social Security statement that's aimed at better explaining retirement options, ranging from retiring early with a reduced benefit at age 62 to retiring after the normal retirement age.

In addition, the agency has revamped its Web site and telephone operations to better educate consumers about their benefits without requiring visits to Social Security offices. The next step will be to allow individuals to apply for survivor's benefits online. After that, the agency hopes to make available applications for disability benefits too, Halter said.

"Everybody benefits from this," Halter said. "The customer gets greater convenience; taxpayers get a lower-cost system; and, as a country, we become better prepared to face the retirement of the baby boom generation."

Currently, 14 million Americans over age 50 have Web access and regularly use the Internet, according to a study by Jupiter Communications. That number is expected to double within a few years.

At the same time, the number of Americans eligible to claim Social Security also is expected to balloon. Currently, there are 44 million retirees collecting Social Security, Halter said. By 2040, that number is expected to double to 88 million.

For the technologically savvy, the new options will make applying for Social Security--which until now required an in-person visit to one of the agency's 1,300 field offices--substantially more convenient.

Applying for Social Security benefits over the phone can be done from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local times Mondays through Fridays, compared with the field offices, which are generally open only during banker's hours. In addition, Web applications can be done at any time of the day or night.

The process is not completely automated, however. Applying over the Internet requires printing out a copy of the application form, signing it and sending it in with some documents, such as an original copy of an applicant's birth certificate or marriage license.

To apply by phone, the telephone representative will send the forms that require a signature. They can either be mailed back to the agency with the proper documents or the applicant can make an appointment to take them to the Social Security office.

Even if an applicant has to visit an office to deliver documents in person, the process is still likely to be far quicker than going through the entire application process in person, Halter said.

There's another catch: To use the automated program, applicants must agree to have their Social Security checks automatically deposited into their bank accounts, Halter said. That's a security measure. The Social Security Administration's Web site already is equipped with sophisticated commercial encryption software, agency officials said. However, the agency believes it prudent to send checks directly to banks, understanding that a bank also would have required several forms of identification to open an account.

Indeed, the agency's concern about maintaining proper security is why Americans can't currently check their own Social Security records on the Web. Until Social Security works out what it considers to be an unbreakable password system, it's reluctant to put access to sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers and work history, into cyberspace.

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