updated 6/9/2008 6:42:53 PM ET 2008-06-09T22:42:53

The check's no longer in the mail when it comes to some Social Security payments.

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More than 4 million Social Security and Supplemental Security Income recipients who do not have bank accounts will now have the option of getting a prepaid MasterCard debit card with their benefits instead of a paper check.

Changing from a paper check to a debit card means those without bank accounts will not have to use expensive check cashing facilities or carry around large amounts of cash, the Treasury Department said Monday.

"This is a more sure, more reliable, cost-free and cost-effective way for people to get their money," said Judith Tillman, commissioner of the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service.

The cards can be used just like regular debit cards, allowing recipients to get cash, pay bills and make purchases anywhere MasterCard debit cards are used. Each FDIC-insured card will have its own PIN number for use at ATMs and in stores, and if lost or stolen it can be replaced.

It will also save taxpayer money, Tillman said, with the switch to debit cards from paper checks saving as much as $42 million.

Just like the 40 million people who get their Social Security benefits directly deposited into their bank accounts, debit card recipients will no longer have to worry about their checks being stolen or lost in the mail because the government will automatically transfer their benefits to their cards at the beginning of the month.

There were 700,000 reports of lost or stolen checks last year, Tillman said.

Using the card can be free, the Treasury Department said, because there are no signup fees and bank accounts or credit checks are not required. However, some transactions will have a cost, like ATM withdrawal fees.

However, the Treasury Department suggests getting around those fees by getting cash back with purchases at stores or making free cash withdrawals through bank or credit union tellers.

"It's an opportunity to manage your money for free," Tillman said.

About 14,000 people in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are already using the debit cards. They will be made available to the rest of the country this summer, but people can start signing up for them now.

The Social Security Administration also will allow people to ask for debit cards when they apply for their benefits starting this fall, Tillman said.

There are about 50 million people who receive retirement, survivors and disability benefits from Social Security.

Dallas-based Comerica Bank will issue the cards, the Treasury Department said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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