Census Warns Against Scams, Details Safeguards

No, the U.S. Census Bureau does NOT have anything to do with the distribution of the federal subsidies (up to $1,200 per adult) that will be coming to U.S. citizens to help with financial burdens caused by the coronavirus.

The federal government will use already existing tax information to make those payments; it is not asking individuals for bank account or routing numbers.

No, a U.S. Census worker will NOT ask you for your Social Security number.

No, a U.S. Census worker will NOT ask you for your banking information.

Moreover, a U.S. Census worker will NOT even visit your home in the next few weeks. All field work is halted because of the move to contain the spread of the virus. The bureau will announce when work will resume, but it won’t be before the end of the month and could be much longer.

“We do not ask for Social Security numbers or any banking information,” Lorna Sutton, census manager for the St. Croix office, told the Source last week.

She was responding to questions prompted by a reader who had reached out to the Source with concerns about the census survey. Sutton said she wants to make an internal investigation into that case, to determine whether there were any problems, but in the meantime, she shared information about various ways in which the bureau protects the integrity of the process.

That process is much different in the Virgin Islands and some other territories than it is on the mainland. Residents in the 50 states fill out a simple, “short form” and send it to the U.S. Census Bureau. It takes about 10 minutes to complete the form and it can be done on-line or through the mail. It is used just to make a count of residents. Only if a person fails to comply will he or she be visited by a census-taker.

In the Virgin Islands, the bureau still uses the “long form” which does more than simply take a count of residents. It also gathers a lot of demographic information on such topics as income, education, and length of V.I. residency. This type of information is gathered for the rest of the country periodically in statistical surveys.

In the Virgin Islands, the demographic information is gathered every 10 years during the national census by trained “enumerators” via in-person interviews with residents in their homes.

Enumerators are easy to spot, Sutton said.

“Our attire really stands out. You can’t miss a census-taker,” she said. They wear blue T-shirts and a neon green vest, and carry a black bag – all of which sport lettering marking them as Census 2020. Each enumerator also carries two picture IDs, one issued by the U.S. Census Bureau and one by the University of the Virgin Islands. UVI partners with the federal agency to handle the leg work in the territory.

Each enumerator is assigned to a specific area, Sutton said, and the office keeps track of when a given enumerator is in the field.

The V.I. survey takes an average of 45 minutes to complete, Sutton said. The basic form contains about 50 questions and is about 40 pages long. It does include detailed questions some of which touch on subjects that residents may feel are private, such as whether they own or rent, and how old their home is. However, it does not include any information by which an individual can be identified.

One form covers up to five people in a household, Sutton said. If there are more than five people in a home, the enumerator will use a second, continuation questionnaire.

Census officials stress that all the information is confidential and it is used only in aggregate. For instance, by combining answers from all respondents, census data can show what percentage of the population is over age 60, what percentage are homeowners, or what percentage has graduated from high school.

That data is used to profile the community and to determine its needs. It is widely used by the federal government to apportion funding for health, welfare, educational, housing and economic programs.

“A big part of the census is for us to get our federal funding,” according to Sutton, which is why, she said, it’s important for residents to participate.

Sutton indicated that the bureau is not seeing major problems, but acknowledged that some people have tried in the past to use the census, in the V.I. and elsewhere, as a way to set up identity theft or other scams. That’s the reason there are so many safeguards.

Whenever field work begins again, Sutton urged the public to cooperate with census-takers.

“If you feel uncomfortable, by all means ask the person for their badge number” and if you have questions, call the office at 340-718-2020. That office is now closed, but you can leave a message. And, again, there are no census-takers working right now.

The census formally began March 1. Sutton said field operations halted the week of March 16. Originally, work was scheduled to resume April 6, but that time has been extended to comply with Gov. Albert Bryan’s stay at home order. Census officials have said they will notify the public when survey operations resume.