So many Americans thought a prepaid debit card they received was a scam or junk mail that Treasury is sending out letters urging people to activate the cards, which were loaded with their stimulus payments.

The letter also tells people how to collect their money if they tossed the payment out by mistake.

To speed up the delivery of up to $1,200 in economic impact payments to individuals and up to $2,400 for couples made available under the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act, the Treasury Department mailed prepaid debit cards to 4 million Americans.

The cards, sent in May and June, were issued by MetaBank and came in a plain envelope from Money Network Cardholder Services. There was no indication on the envelope that the correspondence was coming from the IRS or Treasury.

The problem was that payment recipients were expecting a check or direct deposit to their bank account. People didn’t get any communication that they would be getting a debit card instead. So, when the cards arrived, they thought it was junk mail. Others who had never heard of MetaBank thought it was a scam.

“Ideally, the IRS would have given people a choice about receiving their payment on a prepaid card to avoid this confusion, but I understand that they were trying to get as many payments out as quickly as possible, and using the prepaid card added to their capacity,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center.

Like so many other glitches that have plagued the distribution of the stimulus payments, in part because the IRS has been short-staffed during the pandemic, communication has been woefully lacking. Confusion about the debit cards led the IRS to issue a release explaining the prepaid debit cards.

“While it’s encouraging that Treasury said it will now send a letter to those who received their payment by debit card, Treasury also needs to make sure that if someone did mistakenly throw out their card, it can be quickly replaced without additional fees,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said in an email. “I will keep pushing Treasury to address this and other ongoing issues with the stimulus payments so that all who are eligible for their payments receive them and get the financial relief that they need.”

The Treasury is mailing more than 788,000 letters, according to a spokesman. It’s important to activate the stimulus card, because it expires three years from the date of issuance. For cards that have not been activated at the end of this period, the funds will be returned to the IRS.

If you receive a reminder mailing, here are some things to look for to ensure that it’s not fake, according to the National Consumer Law Center, which received a sample copy of the letter and the envelope it will come in.

— Unlike the debit cards, the envelope will carry the Treasury logo and the following notice: “Not a bill or an advertisement. Important information about your Economic Impact Payment.”

— The return address will say: “Economic Impact Payment Card PO Box 247022 Omaha, NE 68124-7022.”

— The letter will have this wording: “The EIP Card Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.”

— You’ll also see instructions that tell you to call customer service at 800-240-8100 (TTY: 800-241-9100) to report the card lost or stolen, or to get a replacement card. There is no fee for the first replacement card.

Many people have complained about the confusing instructions to get to a live representative, so here’s an FAQ on how to navigate the system (it’s tricky) to order a replacement card. You’ll find answers to other questions you may have about using the debit card.

The National Consumer Law Center has posted a sample image of the letter and envelope in case scammers try to take advantage of the situation. The law center also has posted a guide explaining what the stimulus debit card looks like and how to use it without paying fees.

On Thursday, the IRS posted an update about the letter on its “Economic Impact Payment Information Center” page.

“Taxpayers who were mailed a debit card for their Economic Impact Payment but haven’t activated it yet will receive a letter in early July reminding them that they can activate it to access their money or obtain a free replacement card if needed,” the IRS update said. “People expecting EIP payments should look for this mailing and activate their debit cards as soon as possible.”

Live Chat

Please join me on Thursday, July 9, at noon (Eastern time) for a live discussion. My guest will be Eric Bronnenkant, head of tax at Betterment. His 15 years of experience include working for Ernst & Young and Fidelity and working as an adjunct tax professor at Seton Hall University. He will take your questions about tax season 2020.

Reader Question of the Week

If you have a personal finance or retirement question, send it to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line, put “Question of the Week.”

Q: Will there be a further tax filing extension?

A: In an interview late last month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had said he was “thinking about” another extension.

Because of the pandemic, the April 15 tax filing deadline was shifted to July 15.

But in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said the July 15 tax filing deadline would not be extended. Rettig said shifting dates would be confusing.

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. You can rant or rave. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

Julie Iven of Fort Collins, Colo., wrote: “Where’s the advice for the rest of us? For the last few years, I’ve been planning my retirement and learning as much as I could about managing life without a paycheck. There are a great many articles that have assured me that a million in savings won’t be enough. There are others that assure me that most boomers have nothing saved and are doomed to poverty. For some of us — for a lot of us — a million dollars is never going to happen, no matter when we started saving. We have saved, to the best of our ability. And we would like some information on how to make what we have — the savings, Social Security, the few dollars of pension — work for us. Short of that elusive million, how do you know when you have enough?”

Recently, The Washington Post produced an entire section on the New Rules of Retirement. You’ll find an interactive retirement calculator and a column by Allan Sloan pointing out that thanks to Social Security, you are probably in better shape for retirement than you think.