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The Watchdog: Expressing frustration at Direct Express

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Dear Watchdog,

My grandmother, who has dementia, agreed to receive her Social Security benefits via the Direct Express card in 2014. Apparently, the card was mailed and my grandmother misplaced it or threw it out.

She is now in a nursing home, and my mother, who has the power of attorney, has been fighting with Direct Express for almost a year.

They have given her the run around and have been extremely rude and unprofessional, including hanging up on my mom when they don't want to talk to her anymore.

My grandmother's care is in jeopardy without the money she has a right to. She's missing more than three years of Social Security payments. So basically what should have just been a matter of issuing a new card has turned into an all out war. Please help!

Kimberly DeWitt, Diboll, Texas

Dear Kimberly,

Your story is heartbreaking. I'd never heard of Direct Express, but didn't think it would be too difficult to speak to someone in the company on your grandmother's behalf. Was I wrong!

So wrong, that usually, in a story like this, I'd wait for a happy ending resolution. Yeah, she got her money. We fixed it. Let's have a parade.

But in this case, as I began this story, I had no happy ending. The Watchdog decided to break his happy-ending rule. I have something to report, and it can't wait.

Direct Express stinks.

I tried for a month to get someone from Direct Express to talk to me. I even tweeted a .gif of an impatient, thumb-tapping Spanky McFarlane. (If you don't know the kid, he's worth a Google search.)

"@USDirectExpress," my tweet begins. "I've called. I've written a letter. I've emailed you. Nothing. I'm going to write in my newspaper column that you people are ghosts and unavailable. I have a story about you, and you can contact me to discuss. #crickets."

Kimberly, your mother, Vicky Dudley, told me that your 78-year-old grandmother lost about $30,000 in benefits that she originally paid into. Hers may not be an isolated case.

Direct Express is a debit card where people receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits for the elderly, disabled and veterans can avoid getting paper checks by mail.

The U.S. Treasury created Direct Express in 2008. Dallas-based Comerica Bank is the financial agent, supplying the MasterCards, and the ultimate supervisor of the program is the U.S. Treasury.

Even though they're running a government payment program, employees at the six Direct Express call centers are not government employees. They're not accountable.

There are 4 million users of Direct Express cards now, a Comerica official told me. Of them, 482 filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau in the past three years. But the BBB can't do anything because it's a government program.

Highly frustrating

The frustration shows in the phrases card holders use when they search on Google, according to suggested search terms:

"How do you talk to a person at Direct Express?"

"Direct Express customer service phone number live person."

"Direct Express dispute resolution department."

On message boards, I found more evidence that your grandmother isn't alone.

On consumersaffairs.com, I found James of Kentucky, Christina of Ohio and Cynthia of California.

James: "I spoke to someone after 9-10 attempts to get through to the fraud services department. The excuse I kept getting was some crap about high call volume."

Christina: "Direct Express has twice sent a new debit card to thieves."

Cynthia: "Customer service for my card is non-existent. Rude people that don't know what they're talking about. You get a different answer every time you call."

Kimberly, your mother showed me her three-page synopsis of her attempts to get this resolved, both with Direct Express and the Social Security Administration. Even with power of attorney, she struck out again and again.

"They hang up on you," she said of Direct Express call center workers. "They're horrible. They're so ugly."

Tweet gets response

My Spanky tweet of disgust worked. Someone at Comerica Bank saw it and called me. That's how I got to talk to Comerica vice president Nora Arpin about Direct Express. She called Direct Express "a wonderful program with millions of satisfied card holders."

The bank, headquartered in Comerica Bank Tower on Main Street in Dallas, has run the program with the U.S. Treasury since the beginning. The latest five-year contract was signed in 2014. A separate private company, Conduent of New Jersey (previously Xerox Services), runs the call centers.

A spokesman for the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service told me the program has a "very high customer satisfaction rating."

The advantages for the card are numerous, including no monthly fee, no waiting for checks in the mail and no need for a bank account.

Most people use regular direct deposit at their bank and have no need for this. But most Direct Express users don't have bank accounts. This is supposed to help them avoid high-priced check-cashing businesses.

Oh, and about that happy ending. I passed on your grandmother's information to Comerica. Suddenly, everyone was all sweet with your mom on the phone.

I have some good news to share. Your grandmother's card was stolen and then suspended. I'm glad we could get to the bottom of this.

I'm happy to report that she'll be getting a check for $28,000 in lost Social Security payments.

There's no parade.

Direct Express stinks.

P.S. If it happens again, call this number at Comerica Bank: 313-222-3435.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

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