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State’s robocalls over debts widely denounced

Advocates say tactics to get unemployment overpayments are aggressive, often unfair

Consumer advocates, lawyers, and a candidate for attorney general called for the state to stop using robocalls to collect overpayments of unemployment benefits from tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents, describing the state’s efforts as unfair and harsh.

The state started using the automated telephone messages at the end of July, calling about 1,000 people a day, some owing as little as $100. The state is targeting 63,000 people seeking to collect debts that date back as far as 1985.

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Maura Healey, a candidate for attorney general, said such tactics are disturbingly aggressive and that if elected, she would shut down the collection program “on day one.”

“I am deeply concerned that the state is using anonymous robocalls to collect alleged debts going back to 1985. It’s a solution right out of 1984,” said Healey, a former civil rights attorney and consumer protection advocate in the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor. “Those of us who’ve worked to stop predatory debt collectors have fought similar scare tactics for years and it’s troubling if the same abusive approaches are given a government stamp of approval.”

The Globe reported the program Sunday after obtaining copies of internal e-mails from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance. The automated message, according to the e-mail, says: “You are required to pay this debt. 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.”

State officials said they undertook the robocalls because they had unsuccessfully tried to recover the money by sending letters, and that robocalls had helped other states recover debts. The calls cost 10 cents each for a total of $6,300 and were paid for with $100,000 in federal funds made available under a broader national effort to collect overpayments of unemployment benefits.

A 2011 law allows the federal government to garnish IRS tax returns of those deemed to have been overpaid.

State labor department officials have defended the collection effort, saying nearly 300 people have set up repayment plans to pay back nearly $70,000.

The state has recouped another $400,000 since the robocalls began on July 28.

The department “is strident in its efforts to make sure all claimants are afforded due process in recouping overpayments,” said spokeswoman Ann C. Dufresne, adding that most have been notified with a monthly bill.

The massive collection effort follows last summer’s troubled rollout of a new online unemployment benefits system, which botched claims for thousands of residents. Some had benefits delayed for months. Others received erroneous letters telling them that they owe money.

The problems and errors led the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight to hold three meetings last year to investigate the malfunctions of the benefits system and offer suggestions for revamping how the state awards and manages major technology contracts.

Margaret Monsell, an employment lawyer who testified before the committee, said problems with the system persist. Many claimants have told her that they received letters saying they owe the state repayment, only to be contradicted by subsequent letters saying they do not.

“We hope that the agency regards fixing those problems as a higher priority than pursuing this harsh and often untimely remedy,” said Monsell, who works at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a nonprofit poverty law center in Boston.

Michael J. Widmer, president of Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, who also sits on the Department of Unemployment Assistance advisory board, only learned about the robocall effort after it became public this week.

He considers the robocall tactic fair if the majority of the 63,000 people have been notified that they owe the repayment, which state officials said was the case.

“If a robocall were made out of the blue and there was no previous history [of contact with a person who owes money], that’s one thing,” Widmer said. “But if this follows a process over many years and efforts to collect, that’s totally appropriate.”

Andrew Kisseloff, a Norwood employment lawyer who worked in the state Department of Unemployment Assistance for a decade, disagreed. He said that the state’s records could be faulty, targeting people who do not owe the state money.

“They already send letters, so I don’t understand how robocalling, which I think is reprehensible whenever it’s done, helps,” “Kisseloff said. “It’s just my opinion, but robocalling someone like that is inconsistent with being a public service agency.”

Peter Benjamin, litigation director for Community Legal Aid, which offers free legal services in Western and Central Massachusetts, also supports shutting down the collections effort.

Benjamin said claimants often receive overpayments through no fault of their own, and under state law, they have the right to request a waiver forgiving repayment.

State officials said 229 people have applied for waivers since the program began, but Benjamin criticized the robocalls for not specifically mentioning the waiver option.

“I’m certainly concerned,” Benjamin said. “I think the state ought to hold itself to a little higher standard than a collection agency.”

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