Hundreds of thousands of people face overpayment claims from Social Security

ORLANDO, Fla. — For more than a year, 9 Investigates has been tracking overpayments at the Social Security Administration trying to figure out just how many people have gotten notices asking them to repay money they don’t have.

So far, the federal government has refused to tell us, but what we do know, is that hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps even millions – are impacted and some of those families are right here in Central Florida including Lori, who didn’t want us to use her last name. She said one single piece of paper changed her life forever.


“I went to my mailbox and a letter from Social Security and I opened it and it was a demand letter for $121,000, payable in 30 days. For the explanation was for overpayment,” she said.

Lori worked for the Postal Service until a back injury in 1993 had her filing for her disability insurance benefit payments. Since 2001, she had been collecting about $900 a month from Social Security for more than 15 years and couldn’t get an answer from Social Security on why she owed them.

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“So then I’m literally at the point of frustration and I’m so scared because, you know, I’m looking I’m going to lose everything,” she said.

So afraid that she sold her house, her car and even took her money out of the bank.

“We live we lived like...fugitives! No money in my bank account for the first time in my life and just because I didn’t want them to to reach in and grab it,” Lori said.

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Records show the majority of the overpayments are from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), basically retirement-aged, low-income and/or disabled beneficiaries who exceeded asset or income limits. Many of the mistakes are due to income reporting errors, but even when it’s the agency’s own mistake, it still demands the money back. That was the case for Lori.

It turns out, the Social Security Administration said she didn’t disclose the workman’s comp payments she was getting. But she did, the system just didn’t show it, and the agency started taking all of her checks as re-payment.

“You know, if it didn’t happen to me, I would never believe it because there’s not one person who I’ve shared this story with believes that something that they could do that. And I said, yeah. Living proof. They’re living proof that not only could they, they did,” Lori said.

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Attorney Richard Culbertson has spent 40 years handling social security cases and said dealing with the agency gets worse every year.

“The issue, most of the time, nobody answers the phone at the Social Security office to help you with your issue,” Culbertson said. “There is something wrong with the management of Social Security. They just let all these things go and if they won’t answer the phone and they won’t talk to us, then no one is dealing with these systemic problems.”

The Office of Inspector General, which audits the agency, has noted about $4-to-5 billion in overpayments get repaid each year. But there is $21 billion it still has not recovered.

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Rebecca Vallas is a former legal aid attorney who worked with folks who received those overpayment letters. She now works with The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that fights to make public policies fairer for people across the United States. She said she knows what thousands of families now know: the system is broken.

“What we see is huge paperwork processing delays that have been exacerbated by inadequate social security staffing and a grossly reliable 1-800 line that makes it even more difficult for beneficiaries to report changes in their earnings,” Vallas said. “We have an overpayment crisis on our hands and it’s low-income beneficiaries who are getting hardest hit.”

Angela Digeronimo helps lead the SSA employee union and says in her 27 years working for the agency, she has seen it shrink. She estimates it’s down 100,000 employees nationwide. She said technology is also outdated, and for a decade SSA has been critically underfunded.

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“It’s unfortunate because this agency is the number one anti-poverty program that there is out there and it affects everyone right from cradle to grave,” Digeronimo said. “Social security is going to be in your life.”

It took the agency six years to settle Lori’s case. In May, a judge ruled the agency must pay her back the money it withheld from her monthly check as repayment. But Lori’s life was already upended. She left Florida and moved to Georgia where it was cheaper to live.

An SSA spokesperson declined our request for an on-camera interview, but you can read the full statement below, as well as links where you can find help if you find yourself in this situation.

Social Security: What can I do if I’m notified that I have an overpayment?

Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association, Inc.

Social Security disability lawyers

“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.”

This investigation is a collaboration between Channel 9 Eyewitness News and our sister stations in seven states, along with KFF Health News.

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Shannon Butler

Shannon Butler,

Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.

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