WISCONSINREPORT.COM (04/14/08) - U.S. Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have introduced the Illegal Garnishment Prevention Act. The bill would prevent the U.S. Department of Treasury from using direct deposit for Social Security beneficiaries until they put a stop to the illegal garnishment of government benefits from the bank accounts of private citizens. It is already illegal to have banks deduct money from federal funds in personal bank accounts to turn over to creditors, but, it is taking place anyway far too often. This bill starts a process to make it less likely to happen.
With increasing frequency, financial institutions are garnishing or freezing funds on behalf of creditors from bank accounts into which Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Veterans benefits are electronically deposited, despite clear protections in federal law against the garnishment of such benefits.
Millions of seniors rely on their Social Security benefits as their only source of income for basic needs like housing and food. When financial institutions and creditors illegally withhold these benefit checks, they are putting the lives of our most vulnerable segment of the population at risk.
"We need to know how wide-spread this practice has become and find a way to make it stop,” Senator Kohl said.
For many seniors and disabled Americans, social security checks keep them financially afloat from month to month. When banks garnish these funds, they are left with nothing.
"We need to be very careful to make sure proper safeguards are in place to protect seniors in this situation, and this bill will guarantee they are” McCaskill said.
In most cases, the protected funds are taken not only by the creditor, but also by the bank through the collection of additional fees levied for “processing” the garnishment. These can include overdraft charges or insufficient fund charges, which occur as the result of the garnishment.
Some banks have also been found to dip into these protected funds to cover other debts owed to the bank, such as a car loan.
Many older Americans rely on Social Security benefits to pay their rent, buy groceries, and afford prescription drugs. For twenty percent of seniors over 65 years old, Social Security is their only source of income and for two-thirds it is the major source of income.
In August 2007, Kohl, McCaskill, and Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) sent a letter to the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General asking him to investigate the increasingly frequent but prohibited method of collecting debt from senior citizens, veterans, and the disabled.
The senators requested that the Social Security Administration's Inspector General report to them the degree to which large and small banks are engaged in these practices and the extent to which the resulting fees are eating up the safety net funds upon which seniors, veterans and the disabled rely. It is anticipated that the results of the SSA OIG’s investigation will be released in coming weeks.
“In recent months several newspapers have published articles describing how financial institutions have been freezing and assessing fees on accounts in which Social Security and Veterans' benefits are electronically deposited,” the letter read. “Sadly, the majority of the individuals to whom this is occurring are those who can least afford it.”
In November 2007, Senators Kohl, McCaskill, and Baucus were joined by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Gordon H. Smith (R-OR), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and John Kerry (D-MA) in urging the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jim Nussle, to play a role in resolving the matter.
The letter requested that Director Nussle implore one or more of the five federal agencies with jurisdiction over America’s financial institutions to issue a necessary rule clarification.