William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
U.S. Treasury checks are run through a printer.
U.S. Treasury checks are run through a printer. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Every month, the government sends out about 5 million checks to Americans who receive federal benefits. On March 1, the Treasury Department is making those paper checks a thing of the past.
Since May 2011, all new Social Security recipients are required to get direct deposit of their benefits. Some 93 percent of all recipients now do.
But there are still holdouts, so the Treasury Department started a campaign and a website, Go Direct, in an effort to convince the remaining 7 percent.
The department is prodding people to switch for one big reason: cost. Treasury spokesman Walt Henderson says the government will save $1 billion over 10 years by not having to print paper checks.
"It costs us about a little over a dollar to issue a paper check. It costs us 10 cents for an electronic payment," he says. "There's the postage, the production and the cost of the paper and so on that won't be needed with electronic payments."
The government wants all benefit recipients to switch to electronic payments, including those who get Social Security, veterans benefits and federal employee retirement checks. Folks who don't will still get their checks, Henderson says, but they'll also get some personalized attention from Treasury.
"We won't interrupt the payment. We want to see how many people comply and reach out to people in a more direct way through the mail and see if we can assist them in complying with the requirement," he says.
As an alternative to direct deposit, recipients can get debit cards, although there are fees.
AARP has another worry. "We're very concerned about fraud," says Cristina Martin Firvida, the senior lobby's director of financial security.
"To be fair, fraud is a problem whether you have a paper check or whether you have direct deposit or a debit card," she says. "Changing from a check to debit card merely changes the schemes for the fraud."
Firvida says AARP is in talks with the Treasury Department over how to increase safety for the debit cards.
The department says debit cards and direct deposit are actually more secure than paper checks, which get stolen and fraudulently endorsed.