Informer: FEMA may dock Social Security to recoup debt

By By Andrew Perzo / American Press

Can FEMA take money out of my Social Security check to pay back the $2,000 I received after Hurricane Rita? They want to take 15 percent out of my check. Can they do that?

Yes.

Regulations governing disaster aid say applicants must return assistance funds if the money “was provided erroneously”; if

the applicants spent the money inappropriately; or if they “obtained the assistance through fraudulent means.”

A separate set of regulations requires federal agencies to “aggressively collect all debts arising out of activities of, or

referred or transferred for collection services to, that agency.”

Debts that aren’t settled within 180 days are referred to the Department of the Treasury, which can then recoup the money

a bit at a time from tax refunds, Social Security benefits and similar federal disbursements via “administrative offset.”

Under Treasury Department regulations,

an offset amount from monthly benefits must be the lesser of “the amount

of the debt,

including any interest, penalties and administrative costs”; “an

amount equal to 15% of the monthly covered benefit payment”;

or “the amount, if any, by which the monthly covered benefit

payment exceeds $750.”

According to a December 2012 report

compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector

general, the Federal

Emergency Management Agency paid out more than $8 billion in aid

between 2005 and 2010. To speed the disbursement process,

FEMA “relaxed its internal controls,” but that led to the improper

payment of $621.6 million to more than 167,000 recipients,

the report says.

FEMA later revised the figures, the

reports says, “and determined that 91,178 recipients, who received more

than $371 million,

were candidates for recoupment. According to FEMA, there is

sufficient justification to waive the debt obligations and not

to recoup payment from the other 76,310 recipients, who

collectively received more than $250 million in disaster assistance.”

Congress in 2011 granted FEMA the authority to waive the debts of certain aid recipients, and shortly thereafter the agency

began sending out notices to people officials believed were eligible for waivers.

The eligibility requirements, as listed on FEMA’s website:

An improper payment was received from disasters declared between August 28, 2005 and December 31, 2010.

The improper payment did not involve fraud, presentation of false claim, or misrepresentation.

The improper payment was the result of an error on the part of FEMA.

The improper payment was not a result of fault on the part of the survivor.

Collection of the debt would be “against equity and good conscience” which means that it would be unfair under the circumstances

of your case to collect the debt.

The disaster survivor’s household adjusted gross income for the last taxable year is less than $90,000. A household with an

income of more than $90,000 whose case meets the other qualifying criteria could be eligible for a partial waiver.

“As of December 10, 2012, FEMA granted waivers for applicants in approximately 86 percent of the cases it has reviewed,” reads

the inspector general’s report.

“FEMA granted 17,517 waivers and denied 2,852 waivers totaling $97,664,769 and $15,027,894, respectively. FEMA has recouped

$2,774,295 from denied waivers. FEMA has expended an estimated $9,569,776 on related activities.”

For more information, call FEMA at 800-816-1122, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday. The TTY number is 800-462-7585.

Online: www.fema.gov; www.oig.dhs.gov.

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The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email informer@americanpress.com