Centrelink has started sending out 20,000 letters a week chasing up welfare debts after a suspected computer glitch caused their tracking system to malfunction. The mistake has come shortly after the government threatened to jail welfare recipients who may be defrauding Centrelink in a move that was widely criticized by several agencies.
“People are terrified about how they will put food on the table or provide Christmas for their kids. My office has spoken to people who are distraught because they have received a threatening letter warning of enormous debt,” said Independent MP Andrew Wilkie.
The system uses data-matching to detect discrepancies in Centrelink payments and automatically sends a letter to anybody suspected of receiving excessive payments. Recipients are then given three weeks to dispute the claim. This entails finding payslips and employment details from up to six years ago to prove that they were not overpaid.
“I kept getting calls and I just kept ignoring them because it was a no number and a message came up from Probe (a debt collector) and I thought it was just a spam thing… but my housemate is an accountant and said ‘they’re legit’.” Said one woman, speaking to Triple J’s Hack program. She had not received benefits for three months.
Hank Jorgen, the general manager of Centrelink, said that the computer glitch had only effected a small number of people and encouraged anybody who felt they’d been unfairly treated to email him directly. A similar glitch earlier this year left 73,000 families thinking that they owed hundreds of dollars to Centrelink, while the ATO has also recently suffered a similar glitch, going off-line for the first time in its history.