Social Security’s money grab of overpayments hurts those it is supposed to help

By Chicago 5 Min Read

Nothing makes a retiree break into a happy dance like getting a check in the mail.

But this check made me a bit apprehensive.

It came out of the blue.

A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from the Social Security Administration notifying me that it had increased my monthly benefit because the prior amount was incorrect.

The letter explained that SSA changed my benefit amount to give me credit for my 2022 earnings.

“We did not include these earnings when we figured your benefit amount before,” the letter explained.

In other words, it made a mistake.

But I’m beginning to see a pattern. This isn’t the first time SSA had to correct my benefit. I’ve gotten at least two other underpayment notices since I started taking the retirement benefit.

The SSA administers benefits to about 71 million people — retirees, disabled workers and dependents.

The governmental agency has been in business since 1935 but still hasn’t figured out how to prevent hefty overpayments.

  • Social Security benefits will go up by 3.2% in 2024 as inflation moderates

One of those overpayment recipients is a woman I’ll call Gwen.

She was in a fight with SSA over its decision to drastically reduce her disability benefits because the agency had overpaid her — for years.

After SSA clawed back the overpayment amount from Gwen’s monthly benefit, there was very little left for her to live on.

She made a tearful plea for help.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t help Gwen, partially because she lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and her mental health challenges made her difficult to work with.

But even worse, I found her story about being held responsible for Social Security’s mistakes that resulted in overpayments implausible.

“It ain’t fair,” she would say repeatedly during telephone rants that sometimes happened several times daily. Turns out, Gwen was right.

Last week, “60 Minutes” profiled a Chicago couple — Steven and Becky Sword — caught in the same trap as Gwen.

Interviewed by Anderson Cooper, Becky Sword said she was stunned to discover she and her husband owed Social Security $51,887 — and it wasn’t a scam.

According to the “60 Minutes” interview, when Steven Sword took his retirement benefits in 2017, the Swords were diligent about “faxing” Steven’s pay stubs to Social Security “so the agency could monitor his earnings and eligibility.”

Even so, the couple wound up owing the SSA a ridiculous amount of money, despite the agency sending the Swords a letter saying it had increased Steven’s benefits to give him credit for his 2019 earnings.

That scenario sounds all too familiar for my comfort.

The SSA is one of those agencies we trust because it is the depository of our sacred information.

It tags us when we are born, when we get our first job, when we leave our last one and when we are no longer who we were.

Currently, Social Security has no incentive to fix this problem. Maybe the threat of artificial intelligence will do the trick.

I wish I could say that Gwen was successful in getting a waiver. She passed away several years ago.

But I’m comforted knowing she is probably looking down from heaven, saying:

“See there, I told you it ain’t fair.”

Tips to prevent Social Security overpayment

There is an afterward to the “60 Minutes” segment on tips to prevent overpayments:

You also can request a waiver (File Form SSA-632, Request for Waiver of Overpayment Recovery), “If you feel you should not have to pay back “an overpayment because you did not cause the overpayment and you can not afford to repay it.”

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