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Rule 1: Call the 800 number only during the second half of the month, and then only on Wednesdays,Thursdays, and Fridays before 10:00 AM or after 3PM.

This recommendation, which comes out of an official SSA brochure, will help you avoid the times when the 800 number is most heavily used. Whether you adopt this rule depends on two things: 1) whether you really have to call SSA at some other time, and 2) how much you hate busy signals and recordings. The teleservice center is busiest during the first half of the month (when people are calling about missing (checks), on Mondays and Tuesdays (apparently because people use the weekend to dream up questions for SSA), and between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM daily. You can call and talk to a real person from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM Monday through Friday. If you call before 8:00AM or after 4:15 PM local time, your call will be routed to a teleservice center in another time zone. If you call during regular business hours, your call will probably be handled by a teleservice center located in your time zone.

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Rule 2: Do not rely on the teleservice center for answers to important questions about your claim.

The teleservice center is great for scheduling appointments with the local Social Security office, reporting a change of address or missing check, or asking general questions about Social Security programs. However, answers from the teleservice centers that affect entitlement to SSI or Social Security Disability benefits are not to be trusted. One government study found wrong answers to nearly 25% of questions about SSI and 10% of questions about Social Security Retirement, Survivors and Disability benefits were wrong. Answers from claims representatives at local Social Security offices tend to be much more reliable. If you are unable to contact a claims representative, call back the 800 number to see if you get the same answer twice.

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Rule 3: Keep the secret telephone number of the claims representatives at the local Social Security office.

Social Security offices in large cities have unlisted telephone numbers. Only the 800 number is listed in major metropolitan telephone directories. You cannot get local office numbers from the phone company; and you may not be able to get them from the teleservice centers, which have instructions not to give out the phone numbers of local offices in large cities. Once you actually get to talk to a claims representative from a local Social Security office, always ask for a telephone number. Save the number so that you can contact the claims representative again if necessary.

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Rule 4: With an agency as big as SSA, the right hand does not always know what the left hand is doing.

The people at the local Social Security office do not know what the people at the teleservice center told you. If you have questions about both Social Security Disability and SSI, the people at the local office who deal with one program do not always know the answers about the other program. The payment service center in Baltimore does not always know what is going on at your local office. A little skepticism about things you are told is healthy, even when someone from the local office tells you these things.

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Rule 5: If you are applying for Disability benefits and you cannot work, do not let SSA discourage you.

Many people with valid Disability claims give up after they receive denial letters or after they talk with SSA representatives. This is unfortunate because many of these people would be found disabled if they pursued their claims. You should not believe SSA when it says you are not disabled. SSA is often wrong. If you cannot work, pursue your claim at least through the hearing level of appeal. The hearing before an administrative law judge is the only point in the process where you will get the opportunity to personally describe your impairments to a decision maker and explain in your own words how your symptoms limit your ability to work.

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Rule 6: Always appeal promptly.

Although SSA gives you 60 days to appeal a denial, do not wait. Appeal right away. Be sure you save a copy of your appeal papers and the receipt SSA will send back to you. If you do not promptly receive a receipt, call SSA and inquire about it before the 60 days runs out. The best approach is to take your appeal papers directly to the Social Security office and get a receipt on the spot. If you are late with your appeal, unless SSA finds you have good cause for being late, you will have to file a new application.

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Rule 7: Keep copies of everything you get from SSA and send to SSA.

No matter how unimportant something from SSA looks, keep it in a safe place. Also keep the post-marked envelopes. Always save a copy of everything that you mail to SSA. If you complete forms at the SSA office, ask to be provided with copies for your records.

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Rule 8: Keep notes of your conversations with SSA representatives.

Write notes of your questions and SSA's answers. Be sure to write down names, locations and telephone numbers of everyone you talk to at SSA and the date of each contact. If you are told something that affects your eligibility for benefits, ask for it in writing.

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Rule 9: Respond promptly to SSA requests for information.

Whenever SSA asks you for information, provide it as quickly as possible. SSA often asks you to provide information within 10 days. Do everything you can to meet this deadline. Call to request more time if you are going to be late. Do not expect speediness from SSA. Few time limits apply to SSA actions.Your case must wait in line while other cases are being processed.

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Rule 10: Follow-up.

Following up is the best thing you can do. Always be polite; and remember, the person you talk to is probably not the person responsible for delaying your case. In fact, it is unlikely that a single person is responsible for delaying your case. Most likely, your case has been delayed because of understaffing at SSA or the state agency that assists in making disability determinations. Nevertheless, if SSA says you may expect a determination on your claim within a certain amount of time, when that time arrives, call SSA to check on the status of your claim. Although your call will not cause SSA to take your case ahead of other cases that are older, in response to your call, SSA should make sure your file is on track.

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Rule 11: When there is a problem, go to the Social Security office.

A trip to the Social Security office often works wonders in solving problems, especially if you approach your trip as a problem-solving mission, and not a confrontation. You should make an appointment and bring along all your papers relating to your claim. Claims representatives are generally the best sources of help from SSA. If you cannot work out your problem with the claims representative, consider asking to meet with a supervisor - they may be the best person to solve your problem.

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Rule 12: As a last resort, call your Senator or Representative.

If nothing else works, one of the best resources for straightening out SSA's bureaucratic mistakes is your member of Congress. All Senators and Representatives have at least one employee who specializes in dealing with Social Security questions. They are best at straightening out major bureaucratic errors such as inordinate delays, lost files, and an inability to get a straight answer to a question. It will not help to call a member of Congress simply because you have been denied Disability benefits. Denying Disability benefits is, after all, normal SSA behavior. A congressional office is most helpful in dealing with abnormal SSA behavior.