DON'T use the Direct Express card for your Social Security payments!

Social Security checks are a thing of the past. Social Security has long since gone paperless. The United States Department of the Treasury recommends that Social Security recipients who don't want to have their payments sent to a bank account instead use the Direct Express card, which is administered by Comerica Bank.

The United States Department of the Treasury needs to think again.

Most banks either require minimum balances or create other hoops for account holders on fixed incomes to jump through. One bank that is quite popular in my area (but whose name I will not mention) requires no minimum balance and even offers "overdraft insurance" for account holders who also have savings accounts. They don't mention that the saving account IS the overdraft insurance- which, though not an unreasonable arrangement, nevertheless needs to be explained right off the bat. I was once employed by that bank and had the job of explaining all this to people after the fact. I suppose the fact that you have to have a savings account to qualify might be seen as a hint, but I think it might be reasonable to expect more than just a hint.

The same bank specializes in absolutely predatory overdraft penalties which can put a huge dent in one's savings in a hurry. I will not bank there again, myself. The convenience just isn't worth the price.

So it's easy to see how a service like the Direct Express card would be both useful and popular, and under ordinary circumstances, it works quite well. The problem comes when the circumstances aren't ordinary.

This is a link to the result of a Google search for pages containing customer complaints about Direct Express. The number of complaints is massive. And they all tend to be about pretty much the same thing,  a problem I myself have encountered in the past, and am currently dealing with yet again. You see,  it's practically impossible to get in touch with these people.

A few years ago, I lost my card. As instructed, I immediately contacted Direct Express- miraculously, I was able to get through without too much futility and frustration-  and had my old card canceled and a new one sent. It was supposed to arrive in between three and five business days. It didn't.

I waited, and waited, and waited. Weeks went by. Even the U.S. Postal Service finally advised me to give up. So I called Direct Express again. And called. And called. They were constantly experiencing "larger than usual call volumes," and inviting me to call again later.  That is when I managed to get through at all, which was only in a small number of cases.

What usually happens when one calls to report a lost or compromised card is that having answered a list of questions asked by an automated voice, one is asked to wait for a moment while one is connected to a customer service representative. Then the phone simply goes dead. The call remains connected; you continue to lose mobile minutes, but there is no "elevator music," no periodic assurance that an attempt is still being made to connect you, nothing. How long this goes on depends solely how long it takes you to run out of patience. If a call begun this way has ever ended with the caller actually being connected to a customer service representative, I myself am not that caller. The dead air once the automated voice tells you that you're being transferred to a customer service representative is a clear indication that what you're being transferred into is limbo.

In my experience, this happens in approximately eighty percent of the calls one makes to Direct Express trying to report a lost or compromised card. If one is lucky, there is a message to the effect that Direct Express is experiencing "higher than normal call volume," and that one should call again later. The call is then dropped. This happens early in the morning. This happens at noon. This happens in the afternoon. This happens in the evening. One can only conclude that "higher than normal call volume" is, in fact, the normal call volume for Direct Express.

Sometimes one even gets the customary "elevator music" and periodic assurances that a customer service representative will be with one shortly. If that happens, don't get cocky. In a large number of cases, the phone will ring once or twice, indicating that finally, after forty-five minutes or an hour or more of being on hold, one is about to finally be connected to a customer service representative. And then, the call is simply dropped, and you have to call back and start the whole process all over again at the end of the line.

At least twice I have actually gotten through to a customer service representative after trying for more than an hour, only to discover that he or she couldn't hear me, didn't know whether there was anyone on the other end of the line despite my loud, repeated, and emphatic assurances that there was, ended up hanging up on me.

On one occasion, I incurred an unexpected expense. I am not a patient person, alas, but I'm even less a violent one. Yet at the peak of my frustration with Direct Express, at one point I hurled my cell phone at a wall with Cy Young-worthy velocity and had to buy a new one as a result

When I finally got through,  I was desperate to get access to my money and agreed to pay something like eighteen dollars for expedited delivery of my new card. It arrived on time.

About six weeks later, I finally received the first replacement card that had been lost in the mail.

Ok, part of that was the fault of the Postal Service. Some of these problems might be due to the vicissitudes of cellular phone calls. The fault could theoretically be with one's own phone in some cases; maybe my shattered phone deserved its fate, though I doubt it. But the "dead phone" experience happening something like eighty percent of the time and regardless of the phone being used to make the call seems to me to argue powerfully that there is something radically wrong with the phone system at Direct Express. And it seems hard to believe that they don't know about it; they get told often enough! That there are not enough customer service representatives manning an insufficient number of phones seems obvious.  So why don't they do something about it?

Perhaps hiring enough customer service representatives and installing enough phones at their call centers to actually do the job would be prohibitively expensive.  If so, Comerica should either voluntarily stop administering the Direct Deposit card, or- and there is absolutely no excuse for the fact that this hasn't already happened- the Department of the Treasury should rescind its recommendation that people use it.

But there is another solution. It would be both easy and inexpensive. It is also incredibly obvious. Too bad the people at Comerica don't care enough to have implemented it.

I can see no reason whatsoever why having signed into one's account at the Direct Express website and perhaps verified one's identity by answering a series of questions and jumped through the other customary security hoops it should not be possible to click a box and notify Direct Express online that one's card has been lost or compromised, and initiate an automatic process for it to be cancelled and a new one issued and put in the mail without the necessity of even contacting a customer service representative.

 In any case, there is simply no excuse for forcing Social Security recipients, most of whom are on fixed incomes and may desperately need access to money that is already rightfully theirs, to be unable to pay bills or to go without medicine or even food for days and even weeks because it's impossible to simply let Direct Express know that their cards have been lost or compromised and that they need new ones.

Direct Express, Comerica Bank, and the Department of the Treasury have a moral responsibility to do whatever it takes to see that it doesn't happen anymore.

My own Direct Express card was hacked the first week in December and to all intents and purposes cleaned out. That this month's Social Security payment is needed even more urgently than usual should be obvious. I will not even get into the unnecessarily inconvenient process for addressing the fact that my card had been hacked and my money was stolen, beyond saying that I could easily have provided all necessary information for addressing the matter to Direct Express by fax the day it happened instead of being forced to deal with each fraudulent purchase individually when the charge cleared,  and only by U.S. mail. Again, it's almost as if they were making this as difficult for their customers as possible with no particular advantage to Comerica other than reducing the possibility that it would have to replace the money that was stolen.

Suffice it to say that even though I reported all this on December 6, I don't have my new card. I assumed that one of the envelopes I received from them a week or so later contained the card and didn't get around to opening them until last week.  In fact, they were more paperwork about the fraudulent purchases made with my card last month. I have been trying futilely to tell Direct Express that  I still don't have my card ever since, calling at every conceivable hour of the day and night and squandering the last three hours of time on my cell phone in futile attempt after futile attempt.

History repeats itself.

I finally got through this morning, using a friend's phone, by lying about the purpose of my call. I said it was about correspondence I'd received from them. I had no trouble getting through to an actual person, who transferred me to the people who could send me a new card by expedited mail. This occurred after I was hung up on after being fed the "higher than normal call volume" baloney twice immediately before.

Right now my advice to anyone who has to report a lost, stolen, or compromised Direct Express card is to lie and say that you need to discuss a letter you got from them. Then you may actually accomplish something with your call. The odds are overwhelming that no matter what hour it is of the day or the night, it's going to be your only chance of actually getting to talk with a human being.

I intend to email copies of this post to Senators Ernst and Grassley and to Congressman Young. Unless Comerica and Direct Express are willing to act promptly and decisively to remedy this situation,  the Treasury Department has a duty to rescind their recommendation of the card as a resource for people receiving Social Security.

And as soon as my new card arrives, I'm going to empty it, take the money to a local bank, open an account there, and have Social Security send my payments to that account in the future. Whatever hoops I may have to jump through or whatever minimum balance I have to maintain, at least if a problem arises I can simply go there, talk face-to-face with a real person, and get it solved.