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Inflation-linked U.S. bonds crashed the TreasuryDirect website

Americans searching for a respite from inflation flooded the antiquated site trying to buy Series I savings bonds

(Patrick Semansky/AP)

People searching for a respite from inflation have flooded the Treasury Department phone lines and website to try to buy Series I savings bonds, causing much longer waits than usual. It’s the latest example of outdated government computer systems causing anguish for Americans.

On May 2, the Treasury Department announced that the inflation-protected I bonds will earn 9.62 percent interest at least until the end of October. A day later, TreasuryDirect, the website that people have to use to purchase the bonds, crashed.

“As interest in series I securities has grown and traffic to the TreasuryDirect website and call center has increased, we recently encountered issues that impacted some users’ experience,” a Treasury Department spokesman said in an emailed statement.

The department has shifted staff to manage the higher call volume, the spokesman said.

People have questions about the rules for buying I bonds. Some have reached out to me by emailing or calling my toll-free number: 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

You can buy up to $10,000 in I bonds each calendar year. But there are ways to increase that amount, such as using your federal tax refund to buy an additional $5,000 in paper I bonds. You want to make sure you get it right, because purchases that exceed the limit will be refunded and that refund could take up to 16 weeks.

Susan H. Nadler, a New York-based certified public accountant, said she tried emailing and calling the Treasury Department to find out whether her business could buy I bonds. She was on hold for two hours before she gave up trying to get an answer. (The department later emailed her that, yes, her business entity could purchase I bonds.)

“And the website, while they probably answer every question or just about every question you could have, it’s very clunky and difficult to find things and maneuver,” Nadler said. “They just keep adding on to something that’s really old.”

Some are being locked out of the accounts they’ve set up to buy I bonds -- like this caller to my toll-free number. You can listen to him below.

Others are being informed a purchase request was never executed by the Treasury Department even after verifying all their banking information was correct -- like the caller below.

With the stock market continuing its slide downward and banks paying pitiful rates on checking, savings and money market accounts, people are fleeing to Series I bonds, which were created to keep pace with inflation.

I bonds are one of the safest places to park some money right now. It makes sense that people are flocking to the savings bond, where you can get a guaranteed return of almost 10 percent. Why wasn’t the rush anticipated?

If inflation stays high, the next rate adjustment in November could continue to prompt extraordinary interest in the bonds.

The Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Public Debt first made digital Series I savings bonds available for purchase online in 2002. TreasuryDirect, at treasurydirect.gov, was launched in 2004. The site feels like a blast from the past. It needs an update as soon as possible, starting with making it easier for people to edit their banking information.

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The department says to provide additional security, people have to print out a bank change request — Form FS 5512. Then folks have to sign the form in the presence of “an authorized certifying official available at a bank, trust company or credit union.”

The form has to have a certain type of seal or stamp.

In a YouTube video, the Treasury Department says: “Note that notary, Circular 888 and bank address stamps are not acceptable. Acceptable stamps include the institution’s corporate seal or stamp, Treasury-recognized medallion stamps, endorsement guaranteed stamps or a signature guaranteed stamp.”

Now is a good time to buy this inflation-indexed savings bond

Been to a bank branch lately?

I have. I just needed the bank to notarize a mortgage document. I had to call around to find a branch that had a notary on staff. I had to make an appointment. Once I arrived, I waited for about 10 minutes ringing a bell before one of the few people working in the branch could let me inside.

But I digress.

Once the TreasuryDirect form is printed, signed and stamped properly, you have to send it via mail to an office in Minneapolis and then wait for a response back from the Treasury Department.

What in the world? Is this Prince’s 1999?

And what about people unable to navigate the online process or get to a bank branch?

“My husband and I are NOT knowledgeable in the world of electronics,” one Florida woman emailed. “I struggle doing email and that is about it. We are wondering if you or someone can assist us. We do not know if, being challenged like we are with electronic devices, we would be eliminated from investing in them.”

Yes, it’s important to make sure scammers aren’t compromising the online system, and we know they will try. But this process is far too laborious.

“We’re committed to ensuring that TreasuryDirect users have a positive customer experience, which is why Treasury is currently in the process of developing an updated, modern replacement for the current TreasuryDirect system,” the department statement said.

And when will this happen?

It didn’t provide a timeline.

The Treasury Department is dealing with a lot. It’s managing the technological mess over at the IRS. Millions of tax returns are still in a processing nightmare. As of May 6, the IRS said it had 9.8 million unprocessed individual returns, which includes returns from the 2021 tax season.

The IRS online account system is in desperate need of updating as well, National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins complained recently in a blog post.

“In today’s digital environment, consumers have come to expect the convenience of completing actions on their accounts without the need for face-to-face or telephone assistance,” Collins wrote, adding: “Imagine what the IRS can accomplish and how much time and effort it could save if taxpayers could easily access their tax information online. I would like to stop merely imagining this.”

It’s not just the IRS that needs robust online accessibility. The same can be said about TreasuryDirect. In computer years, the site is practically primitive.

Before the next rate announcement, TreasuryDirect needs an update, because the popularity of I bonds isn’t going to wane — especially as markets continue their wild ride.

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