A nostalgic look back at TreasuryDirect’s ‘decoder ring’ login system

By David Enna, Tipswatch.com

After I posted an article on TreasuryDirect’s new look, I got comments from several readers reminiscing about the site’s “decoder ring” login system, which launched in 2007. Well, it wasn’t actually a decoder ring — it was a decoder card — but it it had all the appeal of spy-vs.-spy, cloak-and-dagger, back-of-cereal-box secrecy.

I just happen to still have one of those decoder cards. Here it is:

OK, so how did it work? This is from the TreasuryDirect’s mailing that included the card:

How to use your TreasuryDirect Access Card

You will need to use your TreasuryDirect Access Card every time you log into your account. The Access Card helps protect your identity and personal information. It also provides you with additional assurance you are using the authentic TreasuryDirect website. Here is how it works:

Step 1: Enter your account number and password on the Access Your TreasuryDirect Account page and click the enter button as you would today.

Step 2: Using your Access Card, select your serial number (0000XXXXX on this card) and enter the information we request in the corresponding boxes on the web page, then click Enter to access your account.

As I recall, the site would give you a prompt to enter the corresponding number or letter for certain combinations: C1 would be R. G4 would be 4. H3 would be 2. I suppose every card was different and the serial number determined the code. I guess.

Before you got to the decoder challenges, you had to enter your password using the virtual keyboard that is still in use today. The Wayback Machine Internet Archive has a saved version of the tutorial, from November 2007. Here is the key image:

When you completed the process you reached your account summary page, which looks REMARKABLY like the one still used today, 15 years later:

You can read through a Bogleheads comment string posted in late 2007 complaining about — or at times praising — the decoder card. Some of the choice comments:

The new access card reminds me of the Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring in the movie A Christmas Story. And I’m as disappointed with the Access Card as Ralphie was with the Decoder Ring! Drink your Ovaltine!

I hope TD never sends me one, and if they do, I hope I’m not forced to use it.

The access card is a big pain in the butt. … Yes, the Internet is fraught with security risk, but this is ridiculously cumbersome.

I had a good laugh. It’s really secure though. First type your password on a scrambled keyboard. Then look up the decoder ring for the challenges. Then another scrambled keyboard. If all financial institutions implement this, we will solve the problem with panic selling. People will log in to their accounts less often.

Once I got the card in the mail I was logged in, purchased an I Bond, and was logged out in about 2 to 3 minutes. Not brain surgery, just followed simple directions.

I have never had any problems logging into my account and I appreciate the security.

Using the Treasury Direct Access Card and security system for Treasury Direct has been an exercise in frustration, but I tolerate the frustration since I typically make only one transaction a year.

It’s way more secure than the traditional username and password scheme used by most other places. Sure, it’s a little more work but I like the extra security and anyway, how often do you have to go to Treasury Direct?

TreasuryDirect abandoned used of the Access Card in November 2011, when it changed to the current login system, still using the virtual keyboard plus two-factor verification. It’s possible we will see a new login system as this redesign process rolls along.

* * *

Feel free to post comments or questions below. If it is your first-ever comment, it will have to wait for moderation. After that, your comments will automatically appear.

David Enna is a financial journalist, not a financial adviser. He is not selling or profiting from any investment discussed. The investments he discusses can be purchased through the Treasury or other providers without fees, commissions or carrying charges. Please do your own research before investing.


About Tipswatch

Author of Tipswatch.com blog, David Enna is a long-time journalist based in Charlotte, N.C. A past winner of two Society of American Business Editors and Writers awards, he has written on real estate and home finance, and was a founding editor of The Charlotte Observer's website.
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11 Responses to A nostalgic look back at TreasuryDirect’s ‘decoder ring’ login system

  1. Johnny Bravo says:

    lol I recently found my decoder ring card. I have been reluctant toss it out. Now i know it is just another vintage item for my collection of trinkets. thanks for the info.

  2. Ahura says:

    Immediately after the TIPs Auction results (on TreasuryDirect website) of today, Oct 10th, for CUSIP #:91282CFR7, Security Type:5-Year TIPS.
    I noted that one is able to use the “DELETE” button on TreasuryDirect Order for the same CUSIP. IMO if one does not like the Auction posted Yeild/Rate, one may be able to cancel the pending order.
    Would that work as a strategy to canel orders after the Yeild results?

  3. Manny Matamoros says:

    Thanks for this post. I too have nostalgia for it and I still have my card (just in case, I guess)! It was kinda fun, and certainly seemed secure.

  4. dolph says:

    It’s not a terrible site, but it’s not particularly good either. Nor does it have to be. Let’s face it…no internet day traders will be complaining about charts, graphics, or lack of functionality here.

    Still, the process of logging in should be easier, and from what I understand the process of changing your bank information should be easier, but I haven’t had to do that yet.

    Personally I’m glad I discovered the I bonds niche. It’s nice to force Uncle Sam to actually pay you for funding its largesse, rather than the zero or measly interest which has been the norm.

  5. Ron says:

    I have no problem with logging onto or using the site, but I would like to see a substitute for email as the two factor authentication. Many financial sites use an authentication app (Authy, etc) or a security key (Fido 2) for this purpose. I believe they are more secure. My main issue with TD, of which I am a long-time user, is that handling of forms now takes many months. As interest rates started to increase several months ago I decided to sell some nominal notes by transferring to a brokerage account. (I almost always hold to maturity, but I felt it was a good move at that time.) I’m still waiting for transfer and at this point the sale no longer makes any sense. (A note on TD’s home page says to allow up to 13 weeks for response. That’s not acceptable customer service.) Maybe I’ll switch to the brokerage account for such purchases.

  6. Greg L says:

    re discusson re Treasury Direct’s new website. I could follow the older one better than the newer one. One thing i wish was in plain sight, like you see in a brokerage CD/Bond account tab, is a horizontal ( x line) line w 4w, 8w, 13w, 26w, 52wk as well as 2,3, and 5yr labels for TBills and TNotes, and then on Y or vertical axis, different dates, with the current yield or investment rate for TBill and TNote auction results listed like a spreadsheet. In a much more readable form.
    As i see it, I can see the most recent 20 auctions, but have to go to each 4week or 8 week to see the prior. I think it is easier to get a sense of the current yields if I can see them (all durations) on one page.

  7. Russ says:

    Did you find that account summary page in the Wayback machine or did you find that somewhere else? I wonder what Mike’s balance looks like today 🙂

  8. John Endicott says:

    So basically, the access card was a primitive form of 2FA.

    • Tipswatch says:

      Exactly. My company used a portable login ID system (looked like a small pager) that you could carry around. It generated a new code every time. It would have been hugely expensive to roll that out to all of TD’s customers. Nowadays, we all have phones, messaging and access to email. Problem solved.

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