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State sends robocalls on overpayment of unemployment benefits

63,000 people suspected of wrongly getting jobless benefits as far back as 1985 are targeted

The automated message sounds like one of those dreaded spam calls: “You are required to pay this debt,” the voice says. “Failure to repay your overpayment may affect your ability to collect future unemployment insurance benefits as well as impact your state and/or federal income tax refunds.”

But it’s no scam.

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State officials, using automated phone messages or “robocalls” that began in July, are targeting 63,000 people, about 1,000 per day, who they say received undeserved unemployment benefits as far back as 1985. The average amount of the debts the state is seeking to reclaim is about $2,500 a person, but some cases involve amounts as little as $100, according to internal e-mails obtained by the Globe.

Ignoring the calls, no matter the amount owed, carries serious consequences; a person could ultimately lose the ability to collect unemployment benefits in the future or have their future tax refunds garnished.

The state, which for years has mailed letters to some of those targeted, has made some 17,000 calls and collected more than $400,000 in overpayments since late July, officials said, and could recover at least $157 million through the program. The money will go into the state unemployment insurance trust fund to pay future benefits.

While the Massachusetts initiative is part of a broader national crackdown by many states to recoup unemployment benefits that were erroneously or fraudulently obtained in recent years, few, if any states, are pursuing collections as aggressively as the Commonwealth, which is looking all the way back to 1985.

“Wow,” said Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a New York think tank specializing in worker and employment issues. “We’re generally aware of these things among the state and advocacy groups we work with, and I don’t know of anybody saying they’re going back that far.”

This is the first time Massachusetts has deployed robocalling to collect overpayments, said Ann C. Dufresne, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. She said the robocalls are the latest, and a more aggressive effort, to recoup the money after years of sending letters to many of those targeted.

To collect on an old overpayment, the state has a number of legal hurdles it must clear.

State officials said there is no statute of limitations for pursuing collection of an overpayment. However, the state has one year to establish that an overpayment was made to a person.

For example, it must have proof by 1999 that a 1998 overpayment that it wants to collect occurred. State officials said there is also a six-year limit on pursuing a civil action, such as filing a lawsuit.

Dufresne said those who think they have been targeted for overpayments in error can appeal to state hearing officers.

But Shannon Liss-Riordan, an employment rights lawyer in Boston, said it’s inherently unfair to go back so far into a person’s past to collect a debt. It would be difficult for people to defend themselves because few keep records for that long.

“It’s not realistic to expect people are going to be able to challenge it,” Liss-Riordan said. “Who’s going to be able to pull out evidence from 30 years ago? You’re only supposed to hold onto your tax returns for something like seven years.”

Massachusetts could not provide data about the number of overpayments in each year, including how many date beyond 20 years.

Officials said more than 20 percent of the overpayments, totaling $29 million, occurred within the last year, after the state’s launch of a new and problem-plagued online computer system to manage unemployment claims. Those problems delayed benefits for thousands of unemployed workers.

Additionally, the new system erroneously mailed bills to some workers claiming they owed the state for past overpayments; some people even had unemployment benefits cut as a result of the mistakes. One Dracut man received a bill for $45,000, which state officials later acknowledged to him was a mistake.

Dufresne said the majority of the billing errors related to the computer system were resolved before the latest robocall collection effort was launched.

She said about 40 percent of the 63,000 people receiving messages were overpaid as a result of alleged fraud.

In most cases, they might not have reported partial earnings during a period when they were collecting full unemployment benefits. Massachusetts allows people to work part-time and still collect benefits, but the unemployment checks are adjusted to reflect those earnings.

Some states have stepped up collection activities after the enactment of a 2011 federal law that allowed garnishment of federal tax refunds to recover overpayments of unemployment benefits. The same law removed a 10-year limit on collections.

Oregon recently began seeking to recover overpayments dating back 10 years from 16,000 claimants. Colorado collected $20 million between 2012 and 2013 of more than $100 million the state says it is owed. Illinois recently attempted to recoup $2 million in overpayments to scores of prisoners.

Research by the National Employment Law Project, however, shows that workers are more likely to lose out on unemployment benefits that are underpaid or improperly denied than they are to benefit from overpayments because of fraud.

In 2010, about $2.2 billion in benefits was erroneously reduced or denied by states; overpayment because of fraud totaled about $1.6 billion.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse-@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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