If you think Social Security staffers are telling you the wrong thing, you may be right. If you are told something by Social Security that you think is wrong, don’t take no for an answer. Keep asking to speak to someone else until you find someone who really knows their stuff.
~ Laurence Kotlikoff, Boston University Professor of Economics
As you may have noticed by now, the information Social Security gives out on the phone is not always correct. Sometimes if you call three times, you will get three different answers.
The people who work at Social Security are not bad people who are trying to make your life miserable. They are just busy people, or under-trained people, or over-worked people, or people who genuinely think they are giving you the right answer.
There are a lot of Social Security rules! No one knows them all. The people who answer the phone at the national number are not trained in all the complex regulations. They are customer service representatives. They can do basic things, like change your address in the system, or look something in the computer and read you what it says.
They can also answer simple, basic questions. They cannot answer detailed questions. They especially cannot answer specific or detailed questions about SSI financial policies. In the history of the world, no one has ever gotten this type of question answered correctly by talking to someone who answers the phone at Social Security. Not even by accident.
The people who work in your local office may know more of the rules than the national number, but it depends on the person and what role they are in. Supervisors are more likely to know more, and some caseworkers are specifically trained in SSI or SSDI (But not necessarily in both).
For mysterious reasons, the folks who work at Social Security tend not to say “I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the answer.” Instead, they give you an answer. That’s where the trouble starts.
John McAdams saw a widow being given misinformation at her local Social Security office. He submitted a written request about this and he got a written reply! The reply said they refused to look into it and refused to contact the widow and let her know. Here’s how John explained how it turned out: “This woman will continue to lose $357 per month for the rest of her life.” Oh, by the way, John McAdams, is a Claims Representative. He works at Social Security.
Here’s one of our favorite stories ever. Meet Sage the ex-Marine. He got some bad intel from Social Security when they told him he could not apply. But you know what he did…. He ignored them and applied anyway. And you know what happened…. He won his case and got over $200,000 in backpay. That’s right, boys and girls, $200,000! How did Sage do this? Read Sage’s Story
“I kept calling and they kept telling me different amounts: $900, $1450, $1100, $980. Finally I downloaded the detailed calculator and figured it out myself: $1522. Today I got my award letter. Lo and behold…. $1522!!!” How did Aster do this? Read Aster’s Story
“I kept careful records of each call to Social Security and each answer I was given. I found the information was accurate 50% of the time. After I got approved, I called and visited for 7 months and they said there was nothing I could do but wait. After finding this website, I contacted my congressperson. They took care of it right away. The check was in my account in 4 days.”
I called Social Security to ask if state income from caring for my son was considered “work” or “Substantial Gainful Activity” and if I would lose my disability benefits. They said “no.” There was a special policy and this income was excluded. My friend kept pointing to the policy and saying this was not correct.
Finally, I printed out the policy and went down to my local office. I asked again and again they said “no.” I showed them the policy and again they said “no.” Then I pointed out a specific sentence and they said, “Oh.”
They transferred me to someone else. Then to a supervisor. Then they brought in the supervisor’s supervisor. The answer was, “yes.”
The Life of a Caseworker
Sunflower used to work as a Case Worker. One day the air conditioning broke. When the repairman removed a ceiling tile, a bunch of files fell on his head. The last caseworker had been so overwhelmed, he started hiding files in the ceiling.
Being a caseworker is not always the greatest job in the world. You are buried in paperwork. You can never get it all done. On top of this, all day long you see people who are upset or desperate or scared or pissed off at you before you’ve even said one word.
Many people who work at Social Security are good people who want to help. They may not even realize they are giving you the wrong information. The regs are very complex, and often it would take many, many hours — or many, many days — to truly understand all of the factors at play for one person’s case.
Social security employees don’t have that kind of time. They are just going to give you an answer quickly, and the answer may be wrong.
What Can I Do?
If you’re being told something that sounds weird, or that you think might be untrue, you have plenty of options! Here’s some things you can try:
What Weird Thing Did Social Security Tell You?
“When I called my local Social Security office, the woman told me there were no appointments available before the deadline, so she made one three days after the deadline and assured me it was no problem. When I got to the appointment, the caseworker told me I had missed the deadline and there was nothing I could do.” – LA
“The woman on the phone was very friendly and nice. She said going back to work was no problem and I was eligible for a Trial Work Period. Six months later, they sent me a letter that I owe back $7,000. I appealed and lost.” – LR
“I called a year ago and asked to add my son to my application. They said everything was fine. Now they say my son won’t get any backpay because I have no proof that I made the request. I lost $6,000.” – GP
“I’ve been on disability for five years and this is the first time anyone ever told me I could enroll my kids. I made an appointment and two weeks later they sent me $20,000.” – Lilac
“She said it was very difficult to get an old case reopened and I shouldn’t bother trying. Next time I went back, I met with a different person. He said it was no problem and reopened my case in ten minutes” – JO
What Do You Think?
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Updated May 2018. If you found this page helpful, please share it with others by pressing one of these magic little buttons: