— The federal agency best known for paying retirement benefits is shutting down a curious side business it began nearly 70 years ago: helping people connect with long-lost relatives.
Since the end of World War II, the Social Security Administration has offered a letter-forwarding service to genealogists, investigators and people who lost track of family members as addresses and phone numbers changed or were forgotten.
Sometimes the missing are owed money from retirement plans and wills. Other times, the letters are the final piece in a decades-long effort to reunite. And some letters never result in a contact, leaving the senders uncertain if their overture was lost in delivery or quietly ignored.
Social Security officials offer a simple explanation for doing away with the effort: Internet search engines and firms that rely on privately collected data, they said, have rendered the service obsolete. The Woodlawn-based agency expects to save about $100,000 a year when it stops forwarding the letters May 19.
"It's reasonable to think we had the most comprehensive database back in those days," said Social Security spokesman William "BJ" Jarrett. "But it's not … a program-related service. It has nothing to do with paying benefits."
The agency said it does not expect any employees to lose their job over the decision because the task has been handled by representatives who have many other responsibilities.
Long before there were concerns about government data collection, Social Security by necessity amassed one of the largest Rolodexes in the nation's history. The nearly 56 million people who receive retirement or disability benefits are in the system. An even larger share of the population who pay into Social Security via payroll taxes are also included.
About 4,300 people asked the agency to forward a letter in 2013, a workload that has remained consistent over the past few years.
Linda Raiche was one of those whose request ended in success.
Raiche, 66, spent decades looking for her mother, whom she hadn't seen since she said she was kidnapped by her father as a toddler. As she grew older, the Virginia woman became more curious about what had become of her mother. Her father has since died.
She stumbled on to the Social Security service in 1997. She turned over everything she knew about her mother and asked the agency to forward a letter if they could find her. Two weeks later, her mother — living in Missouri — called.
The 85-year-old now lives near Raiche.
"I searched and searched and tried all kinds of companies and spent all sorts money," Raiche said, adding that she is disappointed the agency is ending the service.
"Think of the people they could put back together," she said.
Steve Kofahl, a claims representative who has been with the agency for four decades, recounted similar stories. He once helped locate a missing relative so the person could visit with a family member who was dying, he said.
"I can recall these things because they were important issues, and it felt good to help," said Kofahl, who is also an official with the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing many agency workers.
"It's the kind of service that elevates the agency in the eyes of the public," he said.
Kofahl said it typically takes only a few seconds to check whether someone is listed in the agency's database.
The service is limited to letter-forwarding only. To protect the recipient's privacy, Social Security does not disclose addresses or other information in its database. For the same reason, it does not reveal the outcome of the effort.
It's up to the letter's recipient to decide whether to respond.
To ensure scam artists aren't using the system to target victims, the agency reads every letter before mailing it. Requests involving family members are handled for free. Monetary requests — when the missing person is owed money — cost $35 to process.
John L. Roberts, a Massachusetts attorney who handles probate cases, said he once used the service to find a man owed several hundred thousand dollars from an estate dating to the 1950s. The trustee, a large national bank, hired a private investigator to find the beneficiary but struck out.
The unclaimed money was set to revert back to the state.
"Rather than have that happen, I applied to Social Security for the letter-forwarding service," Roberts said. "A month later, the person called me."
But others note the forwarding service is a throwback to a time before Google, Facebook and an abundance of private firms that offer the same assistance.
John Siemon, president of the Maryland Genealogical Society, said in an email he doesn't believe the service is widely used. Ron Triche, director of government affairs for the American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries, said most of his group's members now rely on private firms to locate missing beneficiaries.
The Baltimore Sun reached out to more than 100 estate attorneys and private investigators in the Baltimore region but was unable to identify a single case of the service being used successfully in the area.
Rob Martorano, a vice president at Aon Hewitt, one of the nation's largest human resources consulting firms, told a Department of Labor panel in August that the Social Security service is "expensive … lengthy … and the long-term results are limited, as only the requested letter is forwarded."
Martorano said the process could take up to eight months to complete.
The IRS, which maintains an extensive database of taxpayer addresses, ended a similar letter-forwarding service in 2012. The decision received little attention, let alone outcry.
Despite all that, the Social Security service has persisted until now.
In 2004, the Department of Labor issued guidelines for how certain retirement plan administrators are supposed to deal with a missing retiree who is owed money. The Social Security and IRS letter-forwarding services were one of four tools fiduciaries were encouraged to try.
While it wasn't required, some attorneys rely on the service anyway to ensure they're making every effort available to find people.
Employee benefits attorney Stephen F. Herbes said it is now time for the government to update its guidance, given that the agency letter-forwarding is disappearing. Herbes, based in New York, said he uses the service a couple of times a year, usually to find retirees who are owed relatively small amounts of money.
"It's just one less step that previously we could take that would satisfy our obligation to try to locate these people," he said.
Kofahl, the claims representative and AFGE official, said the decision to end forwarding is only one piece of a wider discontinuation of services that people may soon begin to notice.
Field office workers no longer offer printouts of Social Security numbers, which could be used in some instances in place of a Social Security card. And starting this year, the agency stopped providing benefit verification letters in its offices. People who need to prove they're receiving benefits will have to request those letters online.
"There's no valid budget reason for ending this service," Kofahl said of letter forwarding. "It doesn't come up that often, and when it does it can be very valuable for people."
twitter.com/jfritzeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun