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New Social Security rule upsets seniors who don't text

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Seniors and others who check their Social Security information online now are required to use "a text-enabled cell phone" to access their personal information.

The more than 26 million Social Security account holders were notified of this new rule, which took effect Monday, by email late last week. A detailed statement about the change was posted on the Social Security website on Saturday.

"Now, all new and current my Social Security account holders will need to provide a cell phone number able to receive text messages. People will not be able to access their personal my Social Security account if they do not have a cell phone or do not wish to provide the cell phone number," according to the announcement.

This new rule is frustrating for people like Mary Pat Adams of Rochester.

"I don't do text messaging, though I do have a cell phone. This means I can't log in online to see my account," she said Friday. "This is going to be a problem for a lot of people."

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The new "multifactor authentication" has users login into their "My Social Security" with their username and password, as before. However, it adds an additional step.

Once a user logs into their account, a unique, one-time code is automatically sent to their cell phone via text. Then user must then enter that code within 10 minutes to access their personal information. The code expires after 10 minutes.

The change is described as being necessary "to comply with Executive Order 13681, which requires federal agencies to provide more secure authentication for their online services."

The abruptness of the change has caught more than just Adams by surprise. Local Social Security employees were not aware of the rule on Friday, even though it went into effect three days later.

When called, one Rochester Social Security staffer struggled to find any reference to the new rule. He checked the administration's web site, which had no mention of the rule. Eventually, he came across a message about it on his office's intranet system.

The worker, who did not want his name used, said there had been no mention of the change at any of the Rochester office's weekly employee briefings. The manager of the Rochester office referred all questions the Social Security office in Chicago.

Doug Nguyen, Social Security's regional communications director, did not respond to questions on Friday. On Saturday afternoon, he sent an email with a link to a new statement posted on Social Security's website explaining the change.

The abruptness of the change plus the lack of knowledge by staff made Adams suspicious.

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On Friday, she called a number on the email. The phone system required her to give personal information to reach to a person. Once she reached a live person, the woman did not know anything about the change. Adams became worried that she was being tricked and hung up.

Her next step was to pack up the four visiting grandchildren staying with her and drive to Rochester's Social Security officer to ask about the new cell phone requirement.

"When I finally saw someone, they were chagrined about the whole thing," she said.

It turned out the staff had not been informed yet, but the Social Security worker talking to Adams had received the same email and was worried about how it wouaffect his mother.

The 73-year-old Adams says many of her friends do not have cell phones or don't text with them. She feels this change is going to be "a real challenge" for many and will limit their access to information about their accounts.

The Social Security statement acknowledges that this might cause problems for some people.

"We are limited to text messages for the initial MFA implementation due to technical and resource constraints, but we expect to provide additional options in the future," according to the statement. "We understand that not everyone may have a cell phone or cell service. However, research shows that an overwhelming majority of American adults have cell phones and use them for texting."

A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 78 percent of U.S. adults ages 65 and older own a cellphone. The same study found that only 20 percent of U.S. adults ages 65 and older owned smartphones in 2015.

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