Updated:By: Mike Beaudet
Kevin Rothstein, Producer
(MyFoxBoston.com) -- Jack Earle was just a boy 48 years ago when his father died of a heart attack, a tragedy that also led to his and his young siblings receiving the Social Security benefits his father would have been given had he lived to see retirement.
Earle went on to become a career Army man and then move to a civilian job. Approaching his own retirement, he was shocked then to find that his tax refund this year was being held back by the IRS for a debt he had no idea he owed.
âI received a letter in the mail from the IRS garnishing my wages out of my federal tax check for $352 and I couldnât figure out why,â he told FOX Undercover. âThey said, âThis is a garnishment for overpayment of Social Security.â I said Social Security? What are you talking about? âWell this is from when your father died,ââ was the reply, he recalled.
Earle had no idea what the overpayments were from, though he knows he never profited from them.
âMy brothers and I, we never saw any of this money. Maybe if we didnât see it because it was putting food on the table or clothing on us or something like that but to come after myself now 40-plus years later I think is incredible,â he said.
Earle later learned that the Social Security Administration believes he received two different checks in the 1970s that were overpayments, though he has no record of them and canât get any records from the government.
âI told the guy on the phone, I said, âHe died almost 50 years ago, 48-49 years ago. And for $352 youâre taking money out of me for that?ââ he said. âI was dumbfounded. I couldnât believe what I was hearingâ
âSo I asked the gentleman on the phone, âHow many other people is this affecting? He goes, âWeâre working on cases right now from the 1970s and â80s.â That just floored me,â he said.
âDoes it make you wonder how many other people are getting these same notices?â asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.
âAbsolutely,â Earle replied. âI think that is the main thing I want to find out, how many other people in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, the United States does this happen to?â
Plenty, it turns out, starting with his brother, whose tax refund was garnished last year. The Social Security Administration says it has identified approximately 400,000 Americans who were overpaid at some point in the past, overpayments they are now pursuing thanks to an obscure provision passed by Congress in 2008 allowing the government to collect debts older than 10 years.
The Social Security Administration says in a statement to FOX Undercover it is owed $714 million in old debts. But a massive push to collect the debts from tax refunds has also resulted in widespread confusion.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), wrote a scathing letter earlier this month to the Social Security Administration blasting them for problems with the debt collection.
âIt appears that (Social Security Administration) is not performing due diligence in notifying individuals or allowing them to inspect records of the debt they supposedly owe, which are violations of the law,â he wrote.
That also describes Earlesâs struggle to find answers about his supposed past debt, which he is appealing.
The Social Security Administration has suspended new referrals to the IRS for debt collection pending a review, though itâs unclear where that leaves Earle.
âAll they told me is that it's for my father's death, Social Security benefits. That's all they would say to me,â he said. âAt the Social Security office in Worcester, they couldn't give me any answers. That's all I want. Why are you coming after me 45 years later?â he said.
âYou would think the government would have something better to do than this?â Beaudet asked him.
âCorrect,â Earle replied. âThere are a lot more people out there doing a lot more harm to this country than my $352. Go after them.â
© 2017 Cox Media Group.