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Social Security trying to force Chicago woman to pay back $88,000 in overpayments

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Social Security Administration is trying to reclaim billions of dollars from some of the poorest and most vulnerable; payments the Social Security Administration sent, in some cases for years, but now says the people never should have received.

It’s a story first reported by CBS 60 Minutes on Sunday.

The so-called money claw-back is having real life consequences for a woman in Chicago.

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Monthly Social Security benefits from her deceased husband allowed Diane O’Brien to retire from her job as a school clerk, until all of a sudden she stopped getting the checks.

“Two years down the line, everything stopped, and they sent me a letter saying the fact that I owed $88,000,” she said.

After years of O’Brien receiving the checks, the Social Security Administration (SSA) not only stopped writing them, but demanded O’Brien repay more than $88,000 the SSA overpaid and is trying to claw back.

“I received a letter stating the fact that I was not entitled to that money, because I was collecting a pension,” O’Brien said.

Nationally syndicated financial columnist, author, and former CBS 2 Financial Analyst Terry Savage said she’s heard from many people who are facing so called clawbacks just like O’Brien.

“Social Security is now haunting seniors,” Savage said.

Savage co-authored the book “Social Security Horror Stories.”

“Stop these clawbacks that are destroying the life of seniors and disabled people,” Savage said. “There’s a tangled mess of terrible technology and total indifference that has brought Social Security to this situation.”

O’Brien said she was unknowingly double-dipping—collecting a government pension from her career in education and benefiting from her late husband’s Social Security.

“It changed my whole life, and I shouldn’t have to pay back that money,” O’Brien said.

According to a 2022 inspector general report, the SSA recovered $4.7 billion in overpayments, and still had over $20 billion in uncollected overpayments.

The administration refuted those figures, saying in part, “overpayments do happen given the number of people the agency serves.”

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“Only around 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 8 percent,” the SSA said.

“Let them suffer for their mistakes, not older people who cannot afford to repay these mistakes,” Savage said.

Savage has called on Congress and the Treasury Secretary to prevent the SSA from clawing back overpayments made after one year; a move that could protect retirees like O’Brien.

Just this month, the Social Security commissioner announced that he has assembled a team to review the overpayment policies and procedures within the department.