Chet Mullin, Omaha World-Herald, Neb. McClatchy-Tribune Info Svc

Jul. 31--Beginning next month, the federal government wants 800,000 Social Security recipients in the Midwest to receive benefits on new debit cards instead of by check.

That's the number of people the Treasury Department estimates don't have bank accounts for direct deposit, placing them at greater risk of theft or delivery delays because of bad weather or emergencies.

The "Direct Express" cards, issued by Comerica Bank, are FDIC-insured and are protected with a PIN (personal identification number). The Treasury Department will load monthly retirement and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, benefits directly onto the cards.

Judy Tillman, commissioner of the Treasury's Financial Management Service, said there is no cost to sign up for the card and no monthly fee.

Since the government began introducing the program in April, 50,000 people have signed up, she said. "Our goal was for a minimum of 40,000."

According to the Treasury Department, 700,000 paper checks were reported lost or stolen last year, requiring the government to reissue them.

Eighty percent of Social Security and SSI recipients receive payments directly into their bank accounts, but nearly 4 million people don't have a checking or savings account.

In Nebraska, more than 40,000 people still get paper checks each month. In Iowa, the number is 70,000.

If all 4 million recipients without bank accounts signed up for the debit cards, the government would save more than $44 million annually, Tillman said. The cards also would save money for recipients who now use check-cashing services, she said.

Tillman said some of the card's benefits are:

--One free ATM cash withdrawal per month.

--The option of getting cash back with a purchase or getting cash from a teller at a financial institution.

--Access to an Internet account that shows deposits on the card, cash remaining and notifications when the balance is low.

--One replacement card per year.

Costs can include: a 90-cent charge for additional ATM transactions; surcharges for using ATMs out of Comerica's system; $3 for international ATM withdrawals; 3 percent on international currency exchanges; 50 cents for each online bill payment; and 75 cents per month for paper statements.

Tillman said all fees are listed on the program's Web site, www.usdirectexpress.com.

A survey of people without bank accounts indicated that four out of 10 used some form of debit card as part of government benefit programs, so they knew how the cards worked, Tillman said.

"We would love to hit something like 100,000 people, for a 2.5 percent response rate by the end of the year."

Tillman said the government is pushing the card because it is safer for beneficiaries and save taxpayers money.

The government is rolling out the program through October.

States targeted in the Midwest campaign are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

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