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Retirees tell more stories of stolen Social Security payments

Published Sep. 29, 2012

TAMPA — Former banker Tom Ennis, 78, burns his paperwork in a charcoal grill. No help. Richard Smoker, 84, has Parkinson's disease and Neva Windham, 80, has lung cancer. No mercy.

Thieves got hold of the retirees' personal information and rerouted their Social Security deposits. The same thing happened to Ken Smith of Homosassa, Lorene Cranford of Plant City and Robert Burns of Sun City Center.

The senior citizens recognized their own troubles in a recent Tampa Bay Times story about how criminals are outsmarting the Social Security Administration, diverting electronic benefits onto prepaid debit cards.

Victims can't believe such a thing could happen.

"You'd think the government would have more brains than the idiots running around stealing our money," said Cranford's younger brother, 86-year-old Charles L. Willis.

Social Security is working on the problem.

By the end of October, the agency expects to add a new security feature, spokeswoman Patti Patterson said Friday.

Already, retirees can ask Social Security to turn off electronic access to their accounts. That keeps imposters from using the agency's website or automated phone system to attempt fraud.

But it doesn't block crooks from using online banks that offer automated enrollment for direct deposit or debit cards.

The new safety feature will allow blocking of that, too.

Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., the inspector general for Social Security, called pre-paid debit cards "particularly tempting tools for benefit thieves," when he addressed a House subcommittee earlier this month.

Fifty times a day, he said, his office gets reports of unauthorized changes or attempted changes to a direct deposit routing number. Some may reflect input errors; others, fraud.

The office has received 19,000 reports since last October.

For context, about 711 million electronic payments were issued in that period, spokeswoman Patterson said.

Context is no consolation if you're one of the victims.

Cranford, a 90-year-old retired seamstress, didn't check her account regularly, her brother said. By the time the bank called, she had missed three months of deposits.

Since spring, Ennis and his wife, Cynthia, 74, who live in an Orlando suburb, have lost five deposits to thieves, they say.

"The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get," said Ennis, the man who replaced his paper shredder with a barbecue grill.

He gets home from the Social Security office exhausted. It's worse than yard work, he said.

"We're retired," Cynthia Ennis said. "We don't want to spend what time we have left running to the Social Security office to beg for our money each month."

She figures they're fortunate that they don't actually have to beg, but missed payments are a crisis in many households, where people budget month to month.

"We need this desperately," said Marian Smoker, 83, of Sun City Center, whose husband's deposit was diverted.

"We just have to have his check or we lose the house, we lose everything we own," she said.

Social Security sent them a paper replacement check, to speed up the process.

Her husband is a retired accountant, but with the Parkinson's, he doesn't get around so well, so she handles their finances. She can't think of anything either of them did to expose their private information to identity thieves.

That was the case, consistently, with those who reported their loss to the Times. People could remember giving ID numbers to doctors' offices. But they scoffed at government suggestions that they had fallen for scams such as the Jamaican lottery, in which people submit personal information to collect imaginary prizes.

"I have no idea how they got my information," said Smith, 78, the man from Homosassa.

He and his wife, former Citrus County school bus drivers, supplement their Social Security with a home embroidery business, putting logos on clothing. The theft happened in October.

"I was out in the shop working," he said, "and she came out and said, 'Your check wasn't deposited last week.'"

The trail led to a bank in South Carolina and another out west.

Were the theft not insult enough, Social Security's bureaucracy accidentally steps on toes, bruising victims further.

Long after deposits were replaced, they receive letters stating that they have been overpaid. They know better.

Spokeswoman Patterson said that's an automatic feature of the agency's computer system, which senses when multiple deposits have been made. "While the Inspector General has an ongoing fraud investigation," she said, "we will not take action on the duplicate payment."

A few pointed out that the government didn't give them enough written warning before putting bank changes into effect.

Victim Burns said that when he got Social Security's letter, his deposit was already missing.

"The banks have already charged me $90 in overdraft fees," he said Thursday.

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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