A recurring question I get is whether a postcard or letter that readers receive from the U.S. Census Bureau concerning the American Community Survey is for real.

The correspondence is likely legitimate — I say “likely” because there are scammers out there who copycat legitimate things. The Census Bureau runs several different surveys, the largest being something called the American Community Survey (ACS).

About 3.5 million addresses are randomly chosen to participate in the survey, and more than 250,000 surveys are mailed out to people monthly.

Response to the survey is mandatory because the American Community Survey is part of the decennial census, replacing the “long form” that previously was sent to a percentage of households once every 10 years.

But one reader from Medina called to say she felt that it was an extreme invasion of privacy.

The woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy, said several of the questions bothered her. But one in particular asked the exact time the person and other people in the household left their house to go to work.

“In this day and age of home invasion and identity theft, I just don’t feel they need to know this,” said the woman, who said she’d be willing to answer questions that tried to get the same data, but with a range of times or figures.

She was also worried about data breaches even though the information said her personal data, including name, household income and other sensitive information cannot be shared.

She’s not alone in thinking the survey and the data derived from it, which is used by community, government, businesses and journalists, is an invasion of privacy.

For each of the last five years, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has introduced a bill to make the census survey voluntary.

Twice it passed the U.S. House as an amendment to another bill, but never made it to the Senate. He reintroduced it in March, but it has not left committee.

In an interview, Poe said: “For years, neighbors have contacted me complaining about this government intrusion and harassment and their fear that if they don’t comply, they will face a criminal penalty. This survey is another example of unnecessary and completely unwarranted government intrusion. The federal government has no right to force Americans to divulge private information, especially information that they are uncomfortable giving away. I believe in a limited government and will work to protect American citizens from government abuse. The ACS is an unnecessary waste and an abuse of government power.”

How answers are used

After several unanswered requests to interview someone with the U.S. Census Bureau over a period of two months, my request was formally declined with the explanation that the bureau does not comment on pending legislation.

So in light of that, here is what is says on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, which does have a lot of information about the survey. A good place to start is www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/.

If you click on “What is the ACS” you can find the ACS Information Guide, which goes in-depth. On the left side under “About the Survey,” you can also see a sample survey.

The Census Bureau says the survey’s “72 questions provide an annual portrait of the nation and our communities that America can use to assess the past and plan the future. The ACS is our only source of detailed data about communities across the nation.

“When you fill out the survey, you are supplying information that will help fund school lunch programs, improve emergency services, build bridges, plan hospitals and schools, and inform businesses looking to add jobs or expand to new markets.”

Information from the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year, the bureau’s web page says.

How survey is handled

The survey is sent to addresses, not specific people, and is designed to “ensure good geographic coverage.” The random sample means each address in the U.S. has about a 1-in-480 chance of being selected each month and no address should be selected more than once every five years.

Depending on the survey, there are four options for responding: online, by completing and mailing back the form, in a phone interview, or through an in-person interview with a surveyor at your home. Please note that the notices will always come by mail first, so be careful of any copycats trying to call or email you first.

Follow-up phone calls and even an in-person visit can follow, if you don’t respond to the survey.

If you ever want to confirm that your address really got a legitimate census survey, you can call the Philadelphia regional office of the census at 800-262-4236.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ  on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty