NEW YORK (CNNfn) - There are few sure things in life, but receiving a regular Social Security check in the mail should certainly be one of them.|
Yet, believe it or not, even Uncle Sam makes mistakes, like switching the digits of your personal identification number or bungling your mailing address. So what happens when the check doesn't arrive, or when it does the funds are smaller than you expect because of a mix-up in the pipeline?
The most logical step is to contact the Social Security Administration (SSA). But to some people saying the words "government agency" is akin to swearing, and thoughts of bureaucracy and red tape immediately come to mind.
Barbara Jefferson knows that feeling well. Soon after she cashed in some stock dividends recently she discovered that her Social Security number and name did not match.
"I didn't know what to do, I didn't want to call them [Social Security Administration] back because I thought I would be on the phone forever just trying to get someone to talk to, and then they would pass me from one extension to another," said Jefferson, a bank clerical worker from Brooklyn, New York.
But Jefferson said a friend told her that she could call an automated number to find out the location of her local office and avoid waiting for an operator.
When Jefferson called she was surprised that she got through to an operator fairly quickly.
"It was so simple," said Jefferson. "They told me what papers I needed and when I went to the office I had to wait a while. But by the time I actually spoke to someone it took less than 15 minutes and I was done."
Cutting through the red tape
In recent years, the Social Security Administration has tried to become more accessible by giving consumers more options to file complaints or submit queries whether they are in the United States or abroad.
For starters, consumers can call a toll-free number (1-800-772-1213) that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Representatives are available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on business days while the hearing impaired can call 1-800-325-0778 during the same hours.
"We try to handle problems as quickly as possible, and most can generally be handled by the national 1-800 service," said Mark Hinkel, spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, Md.
Hinkel said the SSA received 59 million calls, 96 percent of which were answered in the first five minutes, according to recent statistics.
Click here for answers to the most frequently asked Social Security queries
Consumers can also resolve their problems face-to-face, like Jefferson, by visiting one of the SSA's 1,300 field offices found across the United States.
Alternatively, many questions can be answered by visiting the Social Security Web site.
Hinkel said consumers can also access a host of online services such as e-news that automatically sends program updates to their e-mail address in the form of an electronic newsletter.
The Web site also provides electronic forms for such things as applying for a replacement Social Security card or applying for Social Security retirement and disability payments.
For those who reside in areas outside the U.S. with a large concentration of Social Security recipients, the Web site also lists local contact centers. For a list of those countries click here.
For technophobes, mailing an SSA office is also an option. The address for those queries is: Office of Public Inquiries, 6401 Security Blvd., Room 4-C-5 Annex, Baltimore, MD 21235-6401.
But whichever method you choose, make sure to always have your Social Security number handy, so that representatives can locate your personal details as quickly as possible.
Jefferson said if she has any problems in the future she will go online for answers. "It will probably save me more time," she said, "because if I can find the answer there I won't have to take time off work to go to an office."