Get help with Centrelink's robo-debts

Get help with Centrelink's robo-debts

How does the 'robo-debt' automated system work​?

Centrelink is using an automated system to try to detect overpayments to people receiving social security payments.

The system uses income information held by government agencies, usually the Australian Tax Office (ATO), and compares it to the income you have reported to Centrelink. If the system thinks there is a difference, Centrelink will send you a letter asking you to provide further information about your income and advising you of a potential debt. They will ask you to provide the information by logging in to your Centrelink account through the Department of Human Services website or myGov website

Flaws in this system have resulted in many Australians receiving inaccurate debt notices. The main problem with the system is if you do not or are unable to provide the requested information, Centrelink averages the income information from the ATO to work out a consistent fortnightly income and uses this to decide if you have been overpaid. This is very unlikely to accurately calculate a debt, particularly when people have not worked consistently throughout a financial year.

There have also been reports of employers' names being recorded differently by the ATO and Centrelink. This means when the data between the systems is ‘matched’, it appears that a person had two jobs rather than one.

Many organisations, including Victoria Legal Aid, have called on the government to immediately suspend the system until these flaws are fixed.

Centrelink has asked me to confirm or update my employment information – do I need to respond?

If you have supporting documentation that confirms your income for the relevant period, such as payslips or bank statements, it may be in your interest to provide this to Centrelink.

You can ask Centrelink for more time to provide the requested information. For help with providing information through myGov, see the National Social Security Rights Network fact sheet, Employment income confirmation.

If you are unable to obtain the information requested, then you can ask Centrelink for assistance. Centrelink has indicated that it may be able to assist people who are unable to obtain the information themselves. 

What happens if I do not or I am unable to provide the information requested by Centrelink?

If you do not provide further information about your earnings, Centrelink will rely on their automated system to decide if you have been overpaid. The system will assume that you earned the same amount each fortnight during the period recorded by the ATO. This information is likely to be inaccurate if you only worked for part of the year, or your income went up or down during this period.

If Centrelink decides that you have been overpaid, it will then send you an ‘Account Payable’ notice with the alleged debt amount and payment options.

Centrelink may also add a 10 per cent penalty fee to the debt if it finds that you either:

  • refused or failed to report all your income without a reasonable excuse, or
  • knowingly or recklessly provided false or misleading information about your income.

In some circumstances, to prove an overpayment, Centrelink may obtain records directly from your employer or from another party, such as your bank.

You have the right to appeal Centrelink’s decision to raise a debt

How do I get a review of Centrelink’s decision to raise a debt?

You have the right to get a review of almost any decision that Centrelink makes about you and this includes a decision to raise a debt. You have the right to request a review regardless of whether or not you provide any information to Centrelink. 

To seek a review, you need to request a review by an authorised review officer (ARO). An ARO is a senior Centrelink officer who has not previously dealt with your matter. The ARO will have a fresh look at the decision and call you to discuss. You can give new information to the ARO to consider.

The ARO is required to make the ‘correct’ decision based on all the information available. They can increase, decrease or cancel a debt on review. The ARO should send you a detailed letter explaining their decision.

You can seek an ARO review in the following ways:

There is no time limit on asking for a review of Centrelink's decision that you have a debt. Even if a debt has been paid back, you can still ask for a review. If a debt is cancelled or reduced because of the review then Centrelink will refund money to you if you have paid more than you should have. If a debt is cancelled on review, any penalty fee should also be waived. 

You can ask for your debt to be put on hold while it is reviewed. This is not automatic and must be requested. This means if you are currently making repayments you can ask for the repayments to be suspended while the review is taking place. 

Actions to recover the debt will restart at the end of any hold period without notice, even if Centrelink has not yet completed the review. You can call and ask for the hold period to be extended if you are still waiting for a review. 

If Centrelink decides not to put your debt on hold, you can request that an ARO review that decision as well, and complain if Centrelink refuses to do so.

Make sure you ask for a receipt number from Centrelink for every request you make and keep copies of any documents you lodge with Centrelink.

Further appeal rights

If you are not happy with the decision of the ARO, you can appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

The AAT is free and informal but it must apply the same laws as Centrelink does. Centrelink will provide information from your file and the AAT will schedule a hearing where you will have an opportunity to explain why you think the decision is wrong.

There are two divisions of the AAT that review Centrelink decisions. If you disagree with the outcome of the first Division (Social Security & Child Support), you can apply for a second review by the General Division of the AAT.

If you have a decision from an ARO and are thinking about appealing to the AAT, you may want to contact Legal Help on 1300 792 387. 

What happens if I don’t pay the debt when it is due?

If, by the due date, you do not pay your debt, seek a hold pending review by an ARO, or enter into a payment plan, Centrelink may:

  • request that the ATO send your tax return to Centrelink to pay off the debt 
  • add an interest charge to the debt
  • refer the debt to a debt collector
  • reduce your Centrelink welfare payments
  • recover the debt from your wages or bank account
  • take legal action to recover the debt
  • issue an order to stop you from travelling overseas.

What if Centrelink takes my tax return?

One of the ways Centrelink can recover a debt is to take all or part of your tax return from the ATO. This can happen without notice.

Centrelink has indicated they may take a person's tax return if:

  • their debt is outstanding (and not on hold pending review) 
  • there is no payment arrangement in place, and
  • they are not currently receiving a Centrelink payment.

If, after your tax return is taken, your debt is cancelled or reduced, Centrelink will refund money to you if you have paid more than you should have.

You also have the right to seek a review of the decision to take your tax return (see How do I get a review of Centrelink's decision to raise a debt?). 

Debt collectors

Centrelink uses external debt collection agencies to follow up debts – Milton Graham, the Probe Group and Australian Receivables Limited (ARL Collect). These agencies may contact you by phone or letter to try and arrange payment of the debt.

You can still seek a review from an ARO even if your debt has been referred to a debt collector. 

If you have asked for an ARO review and are contacted by a debt collector, you can tell them that you want the debt referred back to Centrelink because you are appealing the debt. If your debt is on hold, you do not have to enter into a payment plan with a debt collector. They will usually allow you some time to contact Centrelink to seek a review and request a hold be put on the debt. 

If you feel that a debt collector is harassing you or giving you misleading information, contact the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on 1300 302 502.

How do I make a complaint about Centrelink?

If you are not happy with the service you have received from Centrelink, you have the right to complain. If you make a complaint while an ARO review is underway, it should not have any negative impact on your review. 

You can complain to:

If you have suffered loss as a result of Centrelink’s conduct you can apply for compensation under Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration Scheme. For details see the Department of Finance website.

Further information

Read more on our website about Centrelink.

Read more about reviews and appeals of a Centrelink decision on the Department of Human Services website.

Read more about owing money on the Department of Human Services website.

Read about what we're doing to challenge Centrelink's robo-debt system

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