Brett, from Sydney, was told by Centrelink on Thursday that he'd been overpaid and that he owed them $2360.06. They cited two periods in the past, one in 2013 and another from mid-2014 to mid-2015, when they claim he'd been working and therefore not entitled to benefits.
The problem is, though, the 2013 period was before he'd ever even applied for Centrelink payments. He wasn't actually getting benefits at that point, had never accepted Centrelink payments at that point, but Centrelink says he still owes them money for that period.
Brett, who asked that his full name not be used, told The Huffington Post Australia that Centrelink have given him less than a month to pay back the $2360.
As a student who only works during certain times of the year, usually seasonally in bar work, he said he always updated Centrelink when he started a new job.
He said he knows the debt from 2014 to 2015 is wrong too, because he told the welfare provider when he started working in a bar during that time period, but almost laughed when describing the alleged 2013 debt.
"That was before I even started claiming Centrelink, I hadn't even started getting benefits at that point," Brett said.
"I feel let down. I've been doing the right thing this whole time, declaring income when I earn it. Due to this faulty data matching scheme, it comes down on the disadvantaged, low income earners and students. It makes you feel a bit helpless."
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He completed an apprenticeship and went into a proper job, but six weeks into the position, he decided it wasn't for him. He quit, deciding to go to university instead, and applied for benefits to support himself. Centrelink are now claiming Brett owes them money for that period, when he was working, before he'd ever applied for Centrelink.
He received a letter from Centrelink about six weeks ago, saying his details on Centrelink didn't match with the records he'd provided to the tax office, and asking for clarification. Brett checked and found the ATO records were correct, and the same as those he'd provided to Centrelink, but he guesses that the new automated Centrelink system -- which is averaging out annual earnings into 26 fortnightly lots, instead of assessing how much was earned in each individual fortnight, as it should be doing -- is what spat back out the $2360 debt.
As a student only working occasionally, some weeks he earns a lot, some weeks he earns nothing, but the system doesn't recognise that and instead interprets the income as Brett having worked in every week of the year, therefore being ineligible for Centrelink. This mistake is at the heart of many incorrect debts in this latest crackdown, incorrectly claiming people have been paid money they were not entitled to.
Brett got a text message from Centrelink on Thursday telling him to check his MyGov online account.
"There weren't any messages from them on the screen. I had to click around to find the finance section, into the money owed part, where it said the debt," Brett said.
"The info they provided me with was correct, they showed the dates when I wasn't on Centrelink, but they're averaging it out over the whole year. I'm basically guilty until proven innocent."
Online, the screen gives no options to dispute or explain the circumstances. There are just two options: "make a payment" or "submit a payment arrangement". In bold font, the page proclaims that Brett must repay the entire $2360 by February 3, just 29 days away.
"It doesn't have any option for dispute. There's no message or notification when you go into the website, it's only the text that says we've settled your case through data matching. I had to go in and find the debt," Brett said.
"There's a button to set up a payment arrangement, but there's no info on here, no way to lodge a dispute."
"I definitely don't have the money, especially after Christmas."
Brett said he has been trying to contact Centrelink since yesterday, calling at least 30 times, but each time the line is busy. As HuffPost Australia reported on Thursday, some people are calling Centrelink hundreds of times before the line even connects.
"The government is dealing with this, it's like they're lying, they're evading the reality of the situation. They're saying the first letters aren't debt letters, and that's true, but as soon as you update your details you're hit with it and there's no way around it," he said.
"You're guilty until proven innocent. I'm really pissed off about this. Where's the sense in trying to take advantage of the disadvantaged, when there's major corporations paying no tax?"
Brett said he will likely just try to set up a payment plan unless he can get the debt cancelled. He says he knows the debt isn't correct, but rather than risk a reported 10% debt recovery fee if he doesn't pay back the alleged debt in time, he's going to pay "to save the trouble and hopefully get it back in the end."
"It's a bit fucked but I'm going to play by the rules. I'll dispute it but if they don't get back to me, I'll start a payment plan, even though it's criminal. I'll just take the high road and do it, I know I won't have to repay it in the end," he said.
"Once it's all resolved, I'll go to the appropriate ombudsman, to put in a complaint. The more people who complain, the quicker something will be done about it."
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