In a move that will save the government millions of dollars, Social Security recipients who sign up for benefits after Aug. 1 will have checks deposited directly into their bank accounts if they have one.
Senior citizen groups say the new regulation will provide a safer way to handle payments and eliminate the threat of lost or stolen checks.
But people without bank accounts will still get paper checks for now, said Phil Gambino, a spokesman for Social Security.
Until now, automated payment had been optional. About 61 percent of the 43-million people who receive Social Security benefits have chosen direct deposit.
But by 1999, all federal payments, including salaries and other benefits such as those paid to veterans, will be issued electronically, according to the Treasury Department.
Stanley Ader, 87, of Eastpointe, Mich., has had his Social Security check deposited directly into his bank account since he retired 20 years ago.
"One thing is, I don't have to go to the bank. Another thing, you read in the newspaper about some people losing their checks. And it's a convenience. I don't know why anybody would want to do it any other way," Ader said.
He said he has urged people who get checks by mail to switch.
"I tell them, "Nothing in the world is better than that,' " said Ader. "When you get to our age, you get a bit forgetful and so this way you don't have to worry about someone else getting it for you."
Jim Hagedorn, director of public affairs for the financial management service at the Treasury Department, said the department was looking into ways to provide recipients who do not have bank accounts with the means to get their payments electronically.
He said the government is encouraging banks to set up a debit card service in which people would not have an account but would be able to withdraw their payments electronically.
Hagedorn estimated that converting to electronic payments will save the government about $500-million over the next five years. In addition, it will eliminate about 100,000 check thefts and forgeries a year, he said.
Hagedorn said there is no penalty for those who refuse to comply with the new law.
Senior citizen groups praised the measure.
"I think it's a great benefit," said Patrick Burns, director of communications at the National Council of Senior Citizens. "I think it will make a difference" because it eliminates the risk of check theft.