Seniors balk and Social Security backs off text messaging requirement

By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ Elder Care Attorney

It’s good to keep up with the times, but the Social Security Administration (SSA) found itself too far in front of many people it serves.

Seeking to enhance online protections, the agency required “my Social Security” account holders to use a password sent to them via text message.

That was a problem for some older folks who don’t text message and don’t plan to.

“Who’s the youngster who dreamed up the idea of text messaging for senior citizens,” Franklin, 73, and Janice Moses, 70, of Arlington, asked in an email to the Federal Insider.

SSA officials got the message, not sent by text, and reversed course. Text messaging is no longer required.

“Our aggressive implementation inconvenienced or restricted access to some of our account holders,” said Mark Hinkle, an SSA spokesman. “We are listening to the public’s concerns and are responding by temporarily rolling back this mandate. As before July 30 (when the text messaging requirement began), current account holders will be able to access their secure account using only their username and password.”

Text messaging remains an authentication option and the agency continues to “highly recommend the extra security” it provides, but it is not mandatory. SSA is developing an alternative method that will be available within six months.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, praised the agency’s decision. “I was troubled that the policy would have placed a high burden on seniors, many of whom do not own a cell phone,” Collins said in a statement released Monday. “While the Social Security Administration should develop ways to enhance security to prevent fraud, they must take into account the needs of seniors and ensure that they have easy access to their accounts.”

On Friday, she and Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the committee’s top Democrat, sent a letter to Carolyn W. Colvin, SSA’s acting commissioner, that said the agency’s security concerns must be balanced with a realistic understanding of its clients.

“According to a 2014 study from Pew Research Center, almost a quarter of people age 65 and older in the United States do not have a cell phone,” they wrote.

Perhaps more to the point, that report, based on 2013 data, indicated just 18 percent of the seniors used smartphones, which are better equipped for texting.

“In addition, a significant number of Americans lack access to reliable cell phone service,” the senators added. “On top of both of those factors, many disabled and older Americans receiving Social Security are not as technologically savvy as other segments of the population.”

But don’t think old folks are the only ones technologically challenged. That also applies to SSA’s cyber systems.

The agency’s website showed a notice on Aug. 2 that “due to high volume of traffic, users may have experienced problems receiving security codes,” Collins and McCaskill said in the letter. “The identification methods effectively locks users out of their own accounts and could prevent them from accessing necessary information or making important account changes.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) blamed Republicans for SSA’s outdated cyber system, as he noted the 81st anniversary, Aug. 14, of the date President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935. It created the program that eventually serves almost all Americans.

“Senseless budget cuts have already resulted in extended wait times for seniors calling Social Security’s 800 number, reduced operating hours at the field offices visited by more than 40 million Americans annually, and delays that are averaging more than 500 days for the more than one million Americans waiting for adjudicative hearings,” he said in a statement. “Underfunding the Social Security Administration has also affected the agency’s efforts to modernize its 40-year-old IT infrastructure and address evolving cyber risks.”

To discuss your NJ Elder Care matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com.  Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.