SSA to offer revised Web benefit, earnings system

IDG News Service

T he Social Security Administration last week unveiled a revised version of a controversial system that allows people to view their benefits information via the Internet.

The system has been modified to take into account a flood of criticism that forced SSA to close the application on April 9 a little more than a month after it was first offered.

"Nothing is more important to Social Security than maintaining the public's confidence in our ability to protect the privacy of personal information we maintain in our records " said acting Social Security commissioner John Callahan.

By the end of the year workers once again will be able to view information pertaining to SSA's Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) on SSA's World Wide Web site (www.ssa.gov) Callahan said. PEBES includes information regarding year-by-year earnings history Social Security taxes paid and estimates of retirement disability and survivor benefits payable to workers and family members.

In 1996 3.4 million workers requested a paper copy of their PEBES according to SSA. In the four weeks that it was offered online more than 70 000 people requested to view the information on the Internet.

But Congress and the public criticized SSA after news reports showed the ease with which anyone knowing some basic information could gain access to other individuals' PEBES. SSA closed the PEBES application temporarily to consult with the public Internet service providers (ISPs) and banks on how to make it more secure.

New features of the revised system include:

* Individual Social Security records will be locked out of the Internet unless an individual opts into the new service and those who request online service will be able to opt in only after being informed of the benefits and risks of unlocking their personal information online.

* Delivery of information will be available only to those who have a registered e-mail account such as one with an employer or ISP.

* Users will be required to provide their name as it appears on their Social Security card Social Security number date of birth state of birth and mother's maiden name. A verification code will then be sent to the user who only then will be able to obtain the PEBES information online.

* The modified online PEBES will show benefit estimates number of work credits earned and whether the requester is insured for benefits but it will not show earnings history.

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