NationsBank Corp. and three consumer groups are collaborating to educate people who receive government benefits checks about the switch to electronic payment.

The banking company and its partners-the National Urban League, the National Consumer Law Center, and Consumer Action-will focus initially on an imminent rule from the Treasury Department explaining how Social Security and most other federal payments will be delivered electronically by Jan. 1.

This week the EBT/EFT Education Consortium will begin distributing 50,000 copies of an eight-page, tabloid publication on electronic benefits programs nationwide. The targeted audience is community groups and social services agencies that serve elderly and low-income people. Future updates and separate educational materials for consumers are planned.

"Consumers, consumer advocates, banks, and community organizations that work with benefit recipients all are trying to ensure that electronic transfer systems reach their full potential for recipients and taxpayers," NationsBank president Ken Lewis said in a prepared statement. "However, many questions about how these changes will impact consumers remain unanswered."

Although Treasury Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr. said in late June that the electronic funds transfer program would be voluntary, consumer groups and others anxiously await the final "EFT '99" regulation.

In addition, bankers are waiting for the Treasury to propose details on electronic benefits transfer accounts for the estimated 10 million federal recipients who do not currently do business with a bank. Mr. Hawke said this month that banks that sign contracts with the government would have to offer accounts with low monthly fees and four free withdrawals.

After repeated delays, officials are predicting both the regulation and proposal for the special account design will be issued next month. The Treasury has launched a $7.6 million public awareness campaign and hired an advertising agency, but the founders of the consortium said more must be done to correct confusion among the poor and elderly.

"Government efforts to educate people usually fall woefully short," said Linda Sherry, editorial director for Consumer Action. "There are too many layers of bureaucracy-contractors, subcontractors, and grantees, etc."

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