Highlighting the reliability, security and convenience of direct deposit, the U.S. Treasury Department and neighborhood senior citizen groups are telling anyone who doesn’t know about it, or still insists on receiving a paper check, to take advantage of the electronic payments.

Dubbed “Go Direct,” the nationwide campaign’s goal is to motivate seniors to use direct deposit for Social Security, Supplemental Security Income and other federal benefit payments.

“Direct Deposit ensures that your money is safe and accessible,” says Treasury fiscal assistant secretary Don Hammond. “The benefits of direct deposit become all too clear when routine services are disrupted in natural disasters and other events. Direct deposit offers people peace of mind and security.”

In addition to the personal benefits to recipients of using direct deposit, there is also a wider financial benefit to the nation. An estimated $120 million annually of taxpayer money could be saved if the 13.3 million benefit checks — sent mostly to Social Security recipients — are converted to direct deposit. But despite education and marketing efforts encouraging the switch to electronic payments, the growth rate of direct deposit has slowed to 1 percent in recent years. That figure is particularly troubling with the fast-approaching wave of baby boomers set for retirement in 2008.

The Treasury Department is relying on local AARP chapters and other senior citizen groups to spread the word. Ridgewood Park AARP president Helen Karnes says her chapter has been encouraging the use of direct deposit for years — mostly to prevent theft.

“We are all aware that it’s the thing to do,” she says.

Karnes says seniors who prefer to get a physical check are putting themselves at risk. She has heard the stories of purse snatchings in grocery store parking lots and, more recently, seniors being followed home from the store. She says a petty theft or burglary can easily turn into loss of a full month’s income if a Social Security check is stolen.

Karnes says she will continue to get the word out about the advantages of direct deposit in future AARP meetings.

Robert Mitchell coordinates the money management program for the Senior Source and says he has been counseling neighborhood seniors about the benefits of direct deposit for years.

“We’re very strong advocates of the direct deposit system,” he says.

So far the response has been positive, and Mitchell believes the Go Direct initiative will be a success. He says just a five percent increase in direct deposit participants would be a windfall.

“We’d like to have 95 percent of recipients in direct deposit, but that may not be possible. About 90 percent of the seniors who come for money management classes and other activities already understand and use direct deposit. It’s those who have been shut in and referred by Adult Protective Services who need to hear about it.”

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