JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Social Security is a safety net millions of Americans rely on to pay basic living expenses.
But an Action News Jax investigation found many local families are getting bills from the federal government asking them to pay back tens of thousands of dollars.
The government claims Jasmine Gonzalez owes $26,880.44. She told us it happened after she claimed her mother’s winning bingo prize because her mom didn’t have her Social Security card – 28 years ago. The prize was just under $1,500 dollars, but Gonzalez ended up paying a much bigger price.
“I even went down to the Jacksonville courthouse to the federal courts, filed a petition on them, and they were so nasty towards me I didn’t care no more,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is not alone. Action News Jax found other Jacksonville residents who received overpayment notices from the Social Security Administration (SSA). One was for $10,429 and another was for $12,054.
Lori, who didn’t want us to use her last name, said she was forced to move from Florida to a cheaper home in Georgia after she received a letter from the SSA demanding $121,000 in 30 days.
“It was a horrible, horrible time,” she said. “This was a really cruel, a cruel blow. I mean, when I say I almost threw up when I opened that letter.”
The Office of Inspector General, which audits the agency, has noted Americans repay $4 billion to $5 billion in overpayments each year, but the agency still hasn’t recovered more than $21.6 billion.
Records show most of the overpayments are from Supplemental Security Income (SSI). That basically consists of people of retirement age, low-income and/or disabled who made too much money or had too many assets.
“Beneficiaries are generally some of the lowest income people in this country,” Rebecca Vallas with the Century Foundation said. “And the agency knows full well that they don’t have some pile of cash that they’re sitting on.”
Vallas is an advocate for the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. She has handled overpayment cases for years as an attorney with Legal Aid. She said even when it’s the agency’s own mistake, it still demands people pay back the money.
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“The reality is you can do everything right and still get hit by a massive overpayment from Social Security,” Vallas said.
None of the overpayment letters Action News Jax Investigates reviewed told the beneficiary the reason for the overpayment or the relevant time frame, which makes it harder for the person to challenge it.
“It’s happening every single day to people all around us across this country,” Vallas said.
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“People should care about this issue because this could be any of us,” Vallas said.
More than a year ago, in May 2022, Action News Jax asked the Social Security Administration how many families have been impacted by an overpayment. The agency told us this week, it doesn’t report that data. Based on recent agency reports, we know it’s at least hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of Americans.
Angela Digeronimo has worked for the Social Security Administration for 27 years. She currently works as a claims specialist for the SSA office in Woodbridge, New Jersey. She also leads the SSA employee union.
“Overpayments have been around for as long as I’ve been around,” Digeronimo said, “But what has changed is that we don’t have enough people to do the work.”
Both Vallas and Digeronimo said critically low staffing levels mean it can be several years before workers reassess these cases and catch the overpayments. And even longer before it sends overpayment notices to people. By then, the money owed could balloon into huge amounts.
“It’s our responsibility to let them know. But it’s also the public’s responsibility to let us know when there’s changes and they know what their reporting responsibilities are,” Digeronimo said.
Low staffing may also mean some people tried to report a change in their income or disability and couldn’t get through to the call center. At its core, uncollected overpayments are taxpayer dollars that belong to all of us.
“We take an oath to be stewards of the trust fund. So unfortunately, we do have to collect overpayments or attempt to collect overpayments when somebody from the public has been overpaid,” said Jessica LaPointe, another longtime SSA worker in union leadership.
Gonzalez has this message for the agency: “I need an apology. They should apologize to me [for] taking my money.”
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The Social Security Administration declined our request for an on-camera interview. But the agency did send us the following statement:
“We continually strive to improve stewardship of our programs and reduce improper payments. While staffing losses and resource constraints have challenged our service delivery, our payment accuracy rates remain very high.
“We understand getting notice of an overpayment may be unsettling or unclear and we work with people to navigate the overpayment process. When overpayments occur, we inform people about the fact and amount of the overpayment, their right to appeal, and the options to repay or (in some cases) receive waivers for the overpayment debts. People can appeal an overpayment if they disagree with the overpayment debt decision or the overpayment amount. They also have the right to ask Social Security to waive collection of their debt if they believe the overpayment was not their fault and they cannot afford to pay it back. We do not pursue recoveries while an initial appeal or waiver is pending. We examine each waiver request to determine if the individual caused the debt and their ability to repay the debt. If we can’t waive the debt, we have flexible repayment options—including repayment of as low as $10 per month.
“Our payment accuracy rates are high, yet even small error rates add up to substantial improper payment amounts, given the magnitude of the benefits we pay each year. For instance, in fiscal year 2021, we issued nearly $1.2 trillion in benefit payments. Our Social Security Retirement, Survivors, and Disability benefit payment accuracy is consistently high—less than 0.5 percent of Social Security payments are overpayments. For the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, overpayments also represent a small percentage of payments—about 7 percent—but are higher than our overall payment accuracy rate partially due to the complexity in administering income and resource limits and asset evaluations.
“Nonetheless, Congress recognized that beneficiaries will be overpaid. Therefore, consistent with our stewardship responsibilities, Social Security is required by law to adjust benefits or recover debts when we establish that someone received payments to which they are not entitled and an overpayment occurs. We must maintain our responsibilities to taxpayers to be good stewards of the trust funds. Each person’s situation is unique, and we handle overpayments on a case-by-case basis. Overpayments can occur for many reasons, such as when a beneficiary does not timely report work or other changes that can affect their benefits.
“Improving our business processes to serve our customers better remains a top priority. We are making better use of data and technology to prevent some overpayments. We continue to invest in improvements to make it easier for people to interact with us so we can prevent overpayments. For instance, we are developing a new electronic payroll data exchange program that will automatically use wage information to adjust payment amounts when appropriate, which will help reduce improper payments and reporting responsibilities for beneficiaries.
“We are also working to streamline and simplify our waiver request form to make it easier to understand and less burdensome for people to request a debt waiver. Through proposed rulemaking, we plan to propose to simplify our rules for how a person can demonstrate eligibility for waiver of recovery of an overpayment debt.
“We do not report on the number of debtors.
“· Nicole Tiggemann, Social Security Administration Press Office”