Checking your official Social Security statement is important to make sure your future retirement benefits reflect what you have 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 critical 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.
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 monthly check to expect, 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 older than 60 who aren’t yet getting benefits and who have not set up digital accounts. (Paper statements are still available to anyone on request, by submitting a special form. More than 139,000 people received 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,” Sherry said.
Asked whether the report raised concerns, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, Darren Lutz, said in an e-mail 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, 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:
Q: How do I create a “my Social Security” account?
A: You can register on the Social Security Administration website. You will be asked to enter your Social Security number and birth date, and you will 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 will receive a code by either e-mail or text, which you enter online to complete the process.
Q: If I can get paper statements, why should I get an online Social Security account?
A: 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, of U.S. 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. It’s wise to establish an account and then check it periodically for anything that looked suspicious.
Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.