I sit down with a lot of people — from young adults to people nearing retirement — to go over their finances.

One of the key things I have them do before the meeting is get their Social Security statement. My experience is just anecdotal, but the vast majority of folks don’t have a clue how much they would be receiving in Social Security benefits. This is very concerning to me, because Social Security is critical to retirement planning. Fifty-seven percent of retirees rely on Social Security as a major source of income, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

Most people I work with don’t even realize the Social Security Administration has stopped mailing statements.

In the past, a few months before each birthday, you would get a statement from the SSA with information about your estimated benefits if you elected to take it early, at 62; at your full retirement age; or when you turned 70.

Your annual statement shows the estimated amount you would get if you became disabled, plus information about spousal and survivor benefits. Although you don’t find out the final amounts until you apply for benefits, you need to have an idea of how much you’ll get from Social Security.

In a cost-saving move, the agency stopped sending out the annual paper statements in 2011. Except in some limited situations, people had to create an online Social Security account to get access to their statements. But the decision to stop mailings was reversed a few times.

In 2012, the SSA decided to mail paper statements to workers in the year they reach age 25. It was to be a one-time mailing. Additionally, people 60 and older would receive a mailed statement if they hadn’t started receiving Social Security benefits. Everyone else had to get the statement online.

In 2014, after some criticism, the SSA decided to mail statements again because not enough people were going online to set up accounts. This time, statements were sent to workers who reached ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55. Statements were mailed to those 60 and over who were not receiving Social Security benefits and who hadn’t registered for online accounts.

The mailings didn’t last long.

By 2017, the agency again decided to halt the large-scale mailings. So now, paper statements are sent only to people 60 and over who are not getting benefits and don’t have an account on the Social Security website.

There is bipartisan legislation, introduced in the Senate and House, that would require the SSA to mail an annual statement to all workers 25 and older with covered earnings who are not receiving Social Security benefits. The text of the Know Your Social Security Act can be found here.

“As younger Americans grow more doubtful about their chances for a secure retirement, this bill will provide them a clear view of what their earned benefits will be,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

The SSA’s inspector general found that about two in five individuals who have established Social Security accounts accessed their statements online in fiscal 2018.

“This bipartisan bill would once again place vital, paper Social Security statements in the hands of millions of Americans, to help them more effectively plan for retirement, identify fraud and correct earnings records, and better understand their stake in Social Security,” Bill Sweeney, the senior vice president for government affairs for AARP, wrote in a letter to the chairman of the Social Security subcommittee of House Ways and Means.

Cristina Martin Firvida, AARP’s vice president for government affairs, wrote a similar letter to the members of the Senate Finance Committee.

“When Americans receive an annual statement in the mail, it helps them better understand the importance of Social Security as part of their overall retirement plan,” Martin Firvida wrote. “Paper statements are annual reminders, especially to younger workers, that they have contributed to Social Security and have earned a stake in the program.”

We already know so many people are ill-prepared for retirement, and I agree that the SSA should return to sending out the paper statements. But, given the gridlock in Congress, it may take some time for this bill to pass. So in the meantime, if you haven’t already, please set up your Social Security online account.

There’s another important reason you should set up the account even if the SSA starts sending paper statements: fraud.

To set up an account, go to ssa.gov. Look for the sign-in link for “my Social Security.” If you’re already receiving benefits, you can get benefit-verification letters, change your address and phone number, and input or change direct-deposit information. Here’s something else to keep in mind. If you’ve placed a security freeze, fraud alert, or both on your credit report, you will not be able to open the account until you unlock your file. Social Security uses information in your report to verify your identity. Once you establish the account, you can freeze your file again.

When I first set up my account, it took me less than 15 minutes to go through the verification process. The agency uses information from your credit file to verify your identity. Once you’ve set up an account, you can view your report anytime.

Once you get your statement, carefully review the information and heed this reminder that you’ll find on it: “It’s your earnings, not the amount of taxes you paid or the number of credits you’ve earned, that determine your benefit amount. When we figure that amount, we base it on your average earnings over your lifetime. If our records are wrong, you may not receive all the benefits to which you’re entitled.”

In planning for your retirement, it’s important to check the statement at least once a year — perhaps on your birthday — because it lists your lifetime earnings according to Social Security’s records. Your benefits are based on your average lifetime earnings. If your earnings record is inaccurate, you may not get all the benefits you are entitled to receive.

Each year that passes, you’re one year closer to retiring. And your Social Security benefits are likely to be an important part of your retirement income. So, regardless of whether you get a paper statement, be sure to regularly review your Social Security benefits.

Read more:

Your thoughts

When was the last time you reviewed your Social Security statement? Would getting it in the mail be helpful? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Social Security Statement.”

Retirement rants and raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?

If you haven’t retired yet, what concerns you financially?

You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s newsletter, I wrote about government impostor scams, which are growing and scaring a lot of people. In one particularly heinous scheme, a caller or recorded message claims your Social Security number has been blocked because it has been linked to a crime. You are told that to “reactivate” this important number, you have to pay a fee or buy gift cards and give the caller the code on the back of the cards.

I asked: Have you gotten a Social Security scam call? What were you told?

I was just astonished at the elaborate story one scammer told Jacqueline Werner of Orlando.

“I also got one of those calls from a so-called social security officer,” she wrote. “And it scared me to death. The man on the other line proceeded to tell me he was from the Social Security office. His name was Kevin Jones. He gave me an ID number for him, and he gave me an ID number for my case. He also then begin to tell me that I was being charged with a ‘non-bailable’ enforcement.

“I didn’t know what that was, and he said it is in Section 42, subsection 958, and some drug enforcement handbook thing and then that’s when he proceeded to tell me all the charges that were being raised against me. I did not know what to think. He then went on to say they were on a recorded line and everything that was being said would be recorded for the DEA, FBI and ICE. Then he proceeded to tell that there were two houses in Texas and he gave me the addresses and asked if I had ever been there or knew of these addresses.

“I told him absolutely not. I have never been to Texas don’t even know anybody in Texas. As the story then goes, DEA raided these two homes and there was a bunch of paperwork with my name [on it.] There were nine different bank accounts opened in my name with my Social Security number and 17 credit cards in my name. He told me that over $10 million had been sent overseas and that my Social Security card was going to be deleted and I would have to change my number. He then proceeded to go farther and tell me that I was going to be facing charges of drug trafficking, identity theft and money laundering. He told me the next day two Marshals were going to be showing up at my door.”

The scammer went as far as to tell Werner that she would be stripped of her U.S. citizenship.

“I kept saying: ‘I’m not answering your questions until I speak to my attorney.’ Then he started getting frustrated with me,” she wrote. “He said if you hang up on this call and don’t let me finish explaining these things to you, because we’re on a recorded line then there could be insurmountable repercussions. He started getting so angry and indignant that he ended up hanging up the phone on me. I called my non-emergency police department and explained to them what was going on and she said that they get calls like that daily — sometimes up to 10 or 20 calls a day with somebody calling about a complaint on these scams.”

“I received three calls, two in one day,” wrote Marian Warren of Gig Harbor, Wash. "[The caller said] I was going to be arrested because there was a crime linked to my card. I did not call the number given to me on the phone.”

Jamie Sadler of Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote, “Was given a long-winded list of case ID numbers and officer numbers and was told there was a warrant out for my arrest for money laundering and drug trafficking. The phone call ended with me probing them with questions, not knowing if this was legit or not and the person ended up getting frustrated with my questions and hung up.”

Mary Ann Parrish from Philadelphia wrote, “I received such a phone call, and I immediately hung up. The conversation was about falsifying Social Security documents — I don’t even collect Social Security.

“There must be something these phone companies can do about these robocalls.”

Read:

Please keep in mind:

— Someone from Social Security may call you if you’re working with the agency on some issue or claim. But just to make sure it’s truly the SSA contacting you, hang up and call the SSA’s main number at 800-772-1213 (If you are deaf or hard of hearing, the TTY number is at 800-325-0778).

— If you get what you believe is a scam call, report it. Call the Office of the Inspector General hotline at 800-269-0271. (TTY is 866-501-2101.) You can also file a fraud report online at the office’s website.

— Your Social Security number cannot be suspended, revoked, frozen or blocked.

— A legitimate government employee will not ask you to wire money, send cash or buy gift cards as a form of payment.

— If you are threatened with arrest or some other legal action, it’s not the government calling.

Click here for the link where you can report the Social Security scam calls or schemes you get in an email, text or in person.

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