Get help with Centrelink's robo-debts

Get help with Centrelink's robo-debts

This page contains information to help you understand Centrelink's automated 'robo-debt' system.

It explains your options if the system claims there is a difference between your reported income and information held by government agencies. 

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

Centrelink is using an automated system to try to detect overpayments to welfare recipients.

The system uses information held by government agencies, usually the Australian Tax Office (ATO), and compares whether it matches income reported by a person to Centrelink. If the system finds a difference, it will send you a letter requesting further information and advising of a potential debt.

Flaws in this system have resulted in large numbers of Australians receiving inaccurate debt notices. The main problem has been comparing fortnightly income reported to Centrelink with annual pay information held by the ATO. This has led to errors where people have not worked consistently throughout a financial year. There have also been reports of employer’s names being recorded differently in separate systems. This means when the data between the systems is ‘matched’, it appears that a person had two jobs rather than one.

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

What if Centrelink finds a difference in my reported income?

If the system shows a possible difference between income you reported to Centrelink and income information held by government agencies, Centrelink will send you a letter headed 'Employment income confirmation' or an SMS. This will ask you to update your information by logging in to your Centrelink account through the myGov website. You can ask for more time to provide the requested information. For information on how to provide information through myGov, see the National Social Security Rights Network fact sheet, Employment income confirmation.

You have the right to appeal Centrelink’s decision to raise a debt. See How do I get a review of Centrelink's decision?

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

If you do have supporting documentation that confirms your income for the relevant period, then it may be in your interest to provide this to Centrelink.

If you do not provide any further information about your earnings (such as payslips or bank statements) then Centrelink will rely on their automated system to determine that you have been overpaid. This is because 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 ‘Accounts Payable’ notice with the alleged debt amount and payment options.

Centrelink may also add a 10 per cent penalty fee 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 can 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?

You have the right to appeal almost any decision that Centrelink makes about you. This includes a decision to raise a debt.

There is no time limit on asking for a review of a 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.

In order 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. This means that a debt could be increased, decreased or cancelled on review. The ARO should send you a detailed letter explaining their decision.

If a debt is cancelled on review, any penalty fee should also be waived. If you have made repayments towards the debt in the meantime, you will get that money back.

You can seek an ARO review in the following ways:

You can also ask Centrelink to suspend repayments while the review is taking place. If Centrelink decides not to suspend repayments, you can request that an ARO also review that decision as well, and complain if Centrelink refuses to do so.

Make sure you request 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 have a further right of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

The AAT is free and informal but it does not have discretion, 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.

Is there a time limit on seeking a review?

There is no time limit on appealing Centrelink debts to an ARO. However, Centrelink may ask you to pay back the money while the decision is being reviewed. As of 1 January 2017, actions by Centrelink to recover a debt can be commenced at any time.

As noted above, even if a debt has been fully recovered a person still has a right to an ARO review.

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 review by an Authorised Review Officer, or enter into a payment plan, Centrelink may:

  • request that the ATO send your tax refund 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 a departure prohibition order to stop you from travelling overseas.

Debt collectors

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

If you have lodged 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. You do not have to enter into a payment plan with a debt collector.

If you feel that a debt collector is harassing you or giving you misleading information, contact the ACCC 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. Your right to lodge a complaint is separate from your appeal rights and should not have any negative impact on your appeal. You may have asked for an ARO review of the decision to raise and recover the debt and the decision to not suspend recovery while the ARO review is being undertaken.

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.

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