Taking your word for it

Social Security Administration officials have decided that a caseworker's word is as good as a signature from a citizen who applies online for benefits such as disability income.

SSA officials announced this week that they would immediately begin accepting electronic benefits applications without requiring handwritten signatures on the applications. Instead, agency personnel will be authorized to attest to a citizen's decision to apply for benefits.

According to a May 4 notice in the Federal Register, "attestation" will now be as binding as a pen and ink signature.

Attestation is what occurs when an SSA employee makes an electronic annotation on an applicant's electronic claims form. The annotation is accepted as proof that a citizen has submitted an electronic application for benefits and that he or she has vouched for the accuracy of the data submitted. The citizen then clicks on a "sign now" button to submit the application.

As an alternative to signatures, attestation is a relatively low-tech means for the agency to move quickly to an all-electronic system for processing applications for benefits. A more technical option such as digital signatures would take longer for SSA to set up and would be more difficult for members of the public to use.

In the register notice, SSA officials said they would also rely on a relatively low-tech means of verifying an applicant's identity online. Caseworkers will ask users for personal information that they can verify with data that SSA already has in its databases.

SSA officials anticipate using attestation to process requests for administrative appeals and other procedures within the agency. Attestation will help eliminate the need for caseworkers to store signed paper documents.

Before the new ruling took effect, citizens who used the SSA Web site to apply online for benefits had to submit a completed and signed paper application.

The new ruling on signatures applies to all program offices with SSA, the notice said.

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