Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Census 2010 Drive By…

Just in case you have been living under a rock for the past two months, the radio, television, and news outlets have been rife with warnings and PSA’s about the March mail-out of the 2010 Census form.

Completing of the Census is mandatory.  Regardless of you personal feelings and perspectives on the gobermint asking for all this personal info, it does help determine some critical baselines and information that might qualify your community for additional benefits and representation.

Anyway, for the past few weeks I was a bit confused about this.

As I said, the PSA’s were all saying how the official 2010 Census form would be arriving in the mail in March.

Only I had filled one out in early February.  A really long one, that I had ignored for some time until they sent it to me a second time along with more than a few letters reminding me I had to fill it out.

So I did, and it asked all kinds of personal household questions and details and took about fifteen minutes or so to finish.  It was really big.

Then about three weeks after mailing it in, I got a phone call from someone official like saying they were from the Census and needed to clarify a few of my answers.  I did so and got a big laugh when they confirmed that my salary was not in fact 100 times higher than what I actually earn.  (Not much, btw as doing my 2010 income tax made painfully clear).

So I didn’t think much about it; mostly.  I had done my civic duty.  But why were those PSA ads saying I would get the official census in March by mail?

And when it did arrive last week as promised in our mailbox…my heart sank.  Had I been royally scammed?

US Census Scams

I would like to think that I practice very good skepticism towards my mail and email boxes.  I perform due diligence to vet the authenticity of requests for personal information; particularly of a id or financial nature.  It doesn’t take but a moment’s relaxation of guard to get whomped.

In this case the mailers seemed legitimate, they had all the right words, the pre-paid return mail envelope looked accurate, the fact that I got several follow-up mailers as well seemed positive factors.  The form itself seemed professionally composed (spoken as a sociology major). And the call-back indicated an acknowledgement of my submission.  All the parts fit.

So why was I getting the official 2010 Census form in the mail?

What happened?

Was a victim of one of these?

Digging Deeper

Regrettably, I had shredded the 2nd survey form I had received and all the associated mailings.  Bother.

So I got to digging on the Net and started to see if I could find out any information on the possibility that maybe I had received a Census “Long” form survey.  I remember Dad got one once while I was a kid and it took him quite a while to fill it out. Maybe that’s what it was?

Nope:  2010 Census: What Questions Will They Ask Me? Why Should I Fill it Out? - Associated Content.

2. When and how will I get my 2010 Census form, and how lengthy will it be?

Census forms for the 2010 Census will be mailed out in March of 2010. These forms are short and to the point, and will "less than 10 minutes to complete." Whereas one in six households used to get a census long-form to fill out, in 2010 there will be only short-forms for everyone. This should serve as an encouragement to you. The 2000 Census long-form asked nearly ten times the questions per person as the short-form.

Now I was really getting concerned.  What had I done!

I was starting to feel like Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men.

Uncovering the Perpetrator; ACS

Finally, after additional digging and refining my search I started to flesh out the corpse that was my pride.

My first clue was this How the 2010 Census is Different - Population Reference Bureau tidbit.  From that post…

However, for the first time since 1940, the 2010 Census will be a short-form-only census. This is because the decennial long form has been replaced by the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is a nationwide, continuous survey designed to provide reliable and timely demographic, housing, social, and economic data every year. The ACS will replace the long form in 2010 and thereafter by collecting long-form-type information throughout the decade rather than only once every 10 years.

That led me to this Wikipedia post: American Community Survey

The planned sample will be 3 million housing units and group quarters in the U.S., in every county, American Indian and Alaska Native area, and Hawaiian Homeland, and in Puerto Rico annually (250,000/month). Data will be collected primarily by mail, with Census Bureau follow up.

The Department of Commerce has stated that those who receive a survey form are required to provide answers to a long list of questions about themselves and their families, including their profession, how much money they earn, their source of health insurance, their preferred mode of transportation to and from work, and the amount of money they pay for housing and utilities. Those who decline to answer these questions may receive follow-up phone calls and/or visits to their homes from Census Bureau personnel, and are threatened with prosecution and fines up to $5000.

That seemed to fit my experience.

Fortunately, the article had additional links at the bottom to follow, including the money ones;

And finally the final verification, a sample form on-line to match the one I completed.


But really?  What a load of confusion!

Recommendations, Lessons Learned…and Not

This still needs some way-additional public relations management improvement.  In a flood of media saturation about the 2010 Census and the importance of it, I didn’t hear one single mention of the ACS.


It took quite a bit of Google work after the fact for me to track down just what was going on and why I was getting “two” census forms when the media PSA’s only seemed to indicate one.

It would be nice to see some wider public media attention provided to the ACS as well.  Maybe they are trying to avoid confusion by not mentioning the ACS, but the sword cuts both ways and I feel like I’ve been halved right down the middle.

Think I had a hard time with the ACS?  That’s nothing compared to the work in 2008 that Robert Hueston went through.

His posts and analyses are still spot-on, over two-years later.

If they really want me to fill out this survey, or the 2010 census in two years, they really should:

  • Provide a way I can authenticate that the survey came from the US government. Giving me a phone number is useless; anyone can get a phone number these days. Instead, the instructinos should provide something more authentic, like the URL of a web page, based off of, that confirms the survey is authentic.
  • Provide a way I can ensure that my data is really going to the right authorities, for example, on the web site list the address that should be on the return envelop.
  • Encourage, no mandate that everyone visit the web site, and verify the address on the envelop before they mail their response! Anything less is just encouraging people to believe whatever they get in the mail with an official-looking seal; it's tantamount to abetting identity theft.
  • Allow people to fill out the survey on the web. Personally, I trust ssl encryption far more than I trust my local mail carrier. On the other hand, I don't really trust the government to secure their servers, so maybe that's a bad idea, too.

Finally, I thought to google '"po box 5240" jeffersonville', and got a hit. Looks like this is a real survey from the Census Bureau, albeit conducted in one of the most shady, disreputable, and hard-to-authenticate manners possible.

Two weeks after mailing in the survey, we started to get phone calls from a mysterious 800 number. No name on the caller id, just a number.

After, literally, hundreds of these unanswered calls, we slipped. I was traveling and my wife answered the call, despite the anonymous caller id, thinking it might be from a hotel or calling card. But it was someone claiming to be from the Census Bureau wanting to "verify" our answers to the American Community Scam. If these calls were really from the Census Bureau, why would the caller id name be blocked? Obviously, this is a follow-on scam.


Ironically, the US Department of Justice, has a web page on Identify Theft and Fraud. On that page, the DOJ gives some good advice about avoiding identify theft at home, including:

    * Start by adopting a "need to know" approach to your personal data. A person who calls you and says he's from your bank doesn't need to know information if it's already on file with your bank; the only purpose of such a call is to acquire that information for that person's personal benefit.
    * If someone you don't know calls you on the telephone and asks you for personal data -- such as your Social Security number, credit card number or expiration date, or mother's maiden name -- ask them to send you a written application form.
    * If they won't do it, hang up.
    * If they will, review the application carefully when you receive it and make sure it's going to an institution that's well-known and reputable.

Based on the guidance given us by the Department of Justice, it's clear that we should all discard the American Community Survey if we receive it in the mail, and hang up when they call.

…the Census Bureau has rolled out a new home page with a link called Are You in a Survey? This new web page gives the following information and advice:

    * The address that the American Community Survey response should be sent to, so you can verify that the data you provide is going directly to the Census Bureau.
    * If you have received a telephone call from someone at the Census Bureau, and you have any questions, you may speak directly via telephone or e-mail with an employee of the National Processing Center (at 1-866-226-2864).
    * If a person claiming to be from the Census Bureau comes to your door, ask to see their identification badge and a copy of the letter that was sent to you from the Census Bureau. And if you have any questions about their authenticity, call the National Processing Center.

All of this is good advice, and helps to ensure that your personal information is only going to authenticated, and authorized, individuals. Interestingly, these are all things I suggested in my recent posts.

I’m not bashing the substance of the ACS, and (once I eventually tracked it all down) they do have quite a lot of information on the US Census home site about it.

It was just a very inopportune time to be one of the few who were randomly selected to receive it, right before the official and primary 2010 Census surveys were mailed out and publicized.

Know we know better.

--Claus V.

No comments: