En español | Q: I've read that almost 14 million people have created "my Social Security" personal accounts on the Social Security website. What are these accounts? How do they work?
A: The Internet has made it possible for Social Security to accomplish two key goals: put massive amounts of general information online, available to anyone with a computer, and let individuals see their own confidential information and apply for a wide range of benefits.
Personal accounts are part of this effort by Social Security to move its interactions with you away from the telephone and to the Social Security website. Going digital will save a lot of money for the agency.
Not everyone's happy with the change, of course, especially those without online access. Yet, there's no turning back the clock. And the online system lets you do quite a few things more conveniently, right from home, without long periods on hold on the telephone.
Q: How do I sign up?
A: Go to the sign-up page to create your personal account. In view of how confidential your personal information is, signing up here is a bit more complicated than with other Web accounts. You provide your name, Social Security number and address, of course, but to confirm your identity, you're also asked a few personal questions: what bank gave you a recent home equity loan, perhaps, or what kind of car you drive. Social Security has an arrangement with the Experian credit bureau to confidentially generate and confirm your answers to these questions. Experian knows the answers because of the business world's use of Social Security numbers to identify you.
See also: Top Social Security questions answered
Access to your account, by the way, is not available 24 hours a day. You'll be able to get in on weekdays, from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. (Eastern Time); on Saturdays, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.; on Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; and on holidays, from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Once your account is active, you can change your address or phone number and provide or change bank information regarding the direct deposit of your benefit payments. If you need a letter verifying your Social Security payments, you can get that online, as well.
Q: What can I do online?
A: You can get an estimate of your future benefits. Your personal annual statement is now online, viewable in your online account. It will tell you how much you might receive when you retire, become disabled or become a survivor of a deceased spouse. You can look at your earnings history and verify its accuracy. That's important because, when you retire, your benefits will be based on that earnings history.
But let's say you're already receiving benefits via claiming on an ex- or deceased spouse and want to see if claiming on your own earnings is more financially desirable. The Social Security office advises us that, according to its Internet rules, "A person who is receiving a Social Security benefit is excluded from getting a benefit estimate online." However, the agency notes, individuals can request a benefit estimate by calling the toll-free number at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) or by visiting their local Social Security office.
Q: What can't I do online?
A: You can't apply for the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have limited income and resources. For that, you should call Social Security at 800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to schedule an appointment at an agency office.
And there is no online system for solving problems with your Social Security card. If you need to replace a stolen card or correct your name on the card because of marriage or divorce, you'll have to get in touch with Social Security the old-fashioned way and be prepared to provide it with paper documents to prove your identity.
If you spot a mistake in your earnings history on the website, you can't correct it online; you'll have to contact a person. As mentioned above, if you have started claiming, say, on a former spouse's record, and you are considering changing that, you'll need to resolve that over the phone or in person.
Q: Do the computers let you retire online?
A: Yes, and for this you don't need a personal account. Social Security estimates that an online retirement application takes as little as 15 minutes to complete. Usually no documentation is required; Social Security will contact you if it is. You get an electronic receipt, and as you wait for a decision you can check online for the status of your application.
If you don't yet have Medicare coverage but are within three months of age 65, you can use your application to apply both for retirement benefits and Medicare.
Q: What tools does the site offer?
A: There are several helpful calculators. One will give you an estimate of your retirement benefits. You can also find out your potential disability or survivor benefits. A life-expectancy calculator that will tell you how long you can expect to live is available, too. Although the results of these calculators are informative, most are not linked to your actual Social Security earnings record and use earnings that you enter instead. The Retirement Estimator, which taps into your work record, can help give you an idea of what your future benefit will be.
See also: AARP's Retirement Calculator
Q: I'm told that retirement and other benefits often depend on your "full retirement age." What is full retirement age, and how can I find out mine?
A: This is a good example of how the Social Security website can provide general information that you might formerly have asked a call-center operator to mail to you. Try this Web page on full retirement age and this Web page on benefits by year of birth.
The short answer to your question: Full retirement age is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954. After 1954 the age begins inching up year by year, reaching 67 for people born in 1960 and later.
Q: I've heard that scammers are getting into the act with these accounts. True?
A: Yes, it's true. The heavy attention Social Security has given to creating the accounts has led to a number of phishing schemes: Emails that falsely claim to be from the Social Security Administration encourage you to open an account, though the real purpose is to get your personal information. Some of these messages make the ludicrous claim that your Social Security number will be canceled if you don't cooperate. As with all emails from strangers, you should be very careful about clicking on links. You can report suspicious activities by contacting the inspector general or by calling 800-269-0271 (TTY 1-866-501-2101).
Q: With the shift to online, are mailed paper statements going to be phased out altogether?
A: After suspending mailings, Social Security recently announced that it will resume them, though less frequently. Starting at age 25, people will get a statement every five years and then annually at 60. They won't get them, however, if they have online accounts or are already receiving benefits. Then again, under those circumstances, why would you need them?
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.