16/01/2017 12:28 PM AEDT | Updated 10/04/2017 10:32 AM AEST

Man Spends 30 Hours Disputing False $5500 Centrelink Debt

Ian had to help his daughter, who was overseas and couldn't access MyGov.

Ian's daughter Jane* is overseas, so when a Centrelink letter arrived for her in November, he opened it for her. He found one of the letters from the welfare agency's controversial debt recovery program, saying she needed to confirm her income from several years past.

Later, a debt for $5500 arrived, and because Jane was away, she couldn't log onto the MyGov website to lodge a dispute or give more information. Ian had to spend 30 hours of his own time collecting information, fighting Centrelink's frustrating online and phone systems, and following up lost correspondence before the debt was amended from $5500 to a total of $0.

"It's appalling something like this should happen," he told The Huffington Post Australia.

The story of Ian and Jane, from Adelaide, highlights more of the difficulties faced by people caught up in Centrelink's so-called "robo debt" program. Automated data-matching software links up Centrelink records with information from other government agencies like the Australian Taxation Office, and if discrepancies between data is detected -- which can range from full-on fraud and incorrect income reporting, to record-keeping errors where the different agencies refer to the same business by two different names -- the Centrelink recipient is asked to provide more information. In many cases, this leads to a large debt being levelled against the client for overpayment by Centrelink, which the client is told to pay back within mere weeks.

The letter Ian received, finally stating there was no debt.

This happened to Jane. She's been overseas for a while, and Centrelink said she had been overpaid by $5500. Ian said he instantly knew an error had been made, because Jane had been "meticulous" in keeping Centrelink informed when she picked up employment of her own.

"She had reported her income coming from a business name, but the ATO counted it coming from a company, so they double-counted her major source of income," Ian claimed.

Centrelink is telling clients to use the MyGov government services web portal to provide more information about their cases if they dispute the debt being levelled. The only problem is, Jane found MyGov very hard to use outside of Australia.

"The MyGov account needs a mobile number and she doesn't have access to her Australian number because she's overseas," Ian claimed.

"If you want to use MyGov, you need an access code sent to that mobile. To change the number to another number, you need to access the account, which you can't because you need a code."

From there, Ian said, he began at least 30 hours of dealing with Centrelink. He had to get Jane's written permission that he could act on her behalf, then send it to Centrelink. Ian said the agency received the request that he be allowed to act for Jane, but he was actually not listed as her nominee, and had to re-confirm his right to act for her on each occasion he called. After five requests, he was finally officially listed as her nominee.

Ian managed to get Centrelink to put a stay on her repayments while the situation was being sorted out -- this is rare, as we reported last week, with clients being told to repay their debts even if they dispute them, because the debts are due before the dispute process would be resolved.

*not actually Ian.

Ian stressed, however, that the Centrelink staff he dealt with were helpful and genuinely trying to assist -- but were working in a system that constrained and hampered their efforts.

More calls, more emails, and Ian even had to start his own MyGov account to send through Jane's payslips and employment data for her. He asked Centrelink if he could email some further information through. Staff told him that they don't have email addresses that the public can access.

"It's 2017. How do you not have email?" he asked incredulously. "They said I could fax it. I don't have a fax machine."

After sending through more and more information to Centrelink, the debt was eventually reduced to $3300. After more information, the debt was finally reduced to zero. Ian estimated around 30 hours had elapsed -- of phone calls, emailing, trying to access the online systems and research -- to get the outcome.

"They're putting the onus on people to show they don't owe money, and Centrelink don't have the evidence to show the debt is there. My daughter had reported the correct income, they paid the amount they considered due, and there was no money owing," he said.

"I'm privileged, having worked in government, so I have some idea what to do and how to find information. So many other people feel really overwhelmed by the whole thing, feel scared, don't have any idea how to start to defend themselves."

He said the system of disputing debts and providing information was too slow, difficult and complicated.

"It's unfair all over. People are getting debts and they go back more years than my daughter's debt. It's near impossible to dispute claims being made," Ian said.

"It's an appalling thing. Centrelink staff are put in just awful situations of having to press for debt recovery where none exists, and doing that with vulnerable people."

* - name has been changed.