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Facing Backlash, Social Security Administration Makes Text-Message Code Optional

The agency said it is developing an alternative authentication option in addition to text messaging that it will implement within the next six months.

(TNS) -- Satish Mehra tried to log into his Social Security account, but he was locked out.

To access his information, Mehra needed an authentication code required under a new security measure put in place at the beginning of August. When seniors or other recipients tried to log into their online account, the Social Security Administration offered to text the code to their cellphone. Once they entered that code into the agency's website, access to their user accounts was restored.

The problem: Mehra doesn't use text messaging. So his Social Security account was off limits.

"Why should I be forced to use texting for Social Security when I don't use texting for anything else?" said Mehra, 69, a business professor at the University of Memphis.

Other Tennesseans found themselves in the same predicament. Members of the state's congressional delegation said they've received complaints from seniors who wanted to access their "my Social Security" account, but couldn't.

"While we can all agree cybersecurity is important, it is unacceptable for any new or current Social Security recipient to be prevented from easily accessing their account because they do not have a cellphone," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City.

Facing a backlash, the Social Security Administration apologized Saturday for any inconvenience the new security policy had caused and said it was making the text-message code optional.

Current account holders will once again be able to access their secure account using only their username and password. "We highly recommend the extra security text message option," the agency said in a statement, "but it will not be required."

The agency said it is developing an alternative authentication option in addition to text messaging that it will implement within the next six months.

"We strive to balance security and customer service options — a large part of our stewardship responsibility is to keep data secure — and we want to ensure that our online services are both easy to use and secure," the statement said.

The Social Security system has always had "a robust verification and authentication process, and it remains safe and secure," the agency said.

The Social Security Administration said it had put the new authentication measure in place to comply with an executive order requiring federal agencies to boost security for their online services. Many banks and other financial institutions have similar security measures in place.

The new login procedure didn't keep recipients from receiving their monthly benefits. But it did keep some from going online to change a mailing address or designate a different bank to receive direct deposits.

The policy impacted not only those who don't text message, but also people who live in rural areas with limited cellphone service, said Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin.

"As a representative of a predominantly rural district with a large senior population, this is an issue of concern," said Black, who represents the 6th Congressional District in Middle Tennessee.

Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, said the policy should be optional because "it in effect reduces the amount of many beneficiaries' Social Security incomes by forcing them to pay for cellphone and data plans."

While the safety and security of Social Security recipients is of utmost importance, "the Social Security Administration should provide a secure way for all recipients to access their online accounts regardless of their socioeconomic status or geographic location," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

Mehra agrees.

Several of his neighbors also have been locked out of their accounts, he said.

©2016 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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