Letecia's story – 'It feels like a bullying system that affects people who are the most vulnerable'
'My experience with robo-debt has been confusing and unfair. Despite spending so much time trying to understand the system, I don’t have any trust in the way Centrelink comes up with robo-debts.
'Last year, Centrelink asked me to give them information about my income from 2011 when I was on Youth Allowance. I asked my old employer for my payslips, but when they didn’t send anything I left it, thinking that they would get back to me soon. At the time I was feeling overwhelmed as I was new to working full time and helping care for a family member who had a serious mental illness.
'When you have a lot going on in your life, the impersonal letters and the fact that it is so hard to get on to someone to talk to at Centrelink makes putting it off a lot easier. I have experienced being on hold with Centrelink for one hour, and when I’d finally be on the line with someone, the line would suddenly cut out and I wouldn’t be able to go through another whole hour of waiting.
'In February this year, a Centrelink officer called me and said I had a robo-debt of more than $2300. They asked me to “accept” the debt. They did not explain what the robo-debt was based on and it felt quite pushy, like I had no choice but to accept the debt. I remember being advised that I could always ask for a review, even after accepting the debt.
'I had to contact my old employer several times, because they originally said they didn’t keep payslips going back that long. Eventually a kind person in their Payroll or Human Resources department manually went back into their systems and found my old payslips. I’m lucky they were still trading, and that they managed to find files older than 7 years.
'I asked Centrelink for an Authorised Review Officer to look at my case. My lawyer told me it’s supposed to be a proper review process. But instead of an ARO review, Centrelink just sent me a letter in April saying I had a debt of $400 instead of $2300. They didn’t explain how they reached that number so I wasn’t sure if I could trust the new amount. Thinking about the time and energy I would need to spend to check the amount made me feel stressed and anxious.
'It seems wrong that Centrelink can refuse to do an ARO review after I was told I could ask for one. They’ve now told me I have to go through someone called a “subject matter expert” before I can get an ARO review. It was a bit frustrating because the person I spoke to didn’t even seem to know what an ARO review was. It feels like they keep putting obstacles in my path. I am grateful I got legal advice because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t know about my rights. I could have paid off a debt that I did not owe. I am certain a lot of people have done this because following up with Centrelink and gathering a lot of old documents is really hard.
'Robo-debt feels like a bullying system that affects people who are the most vulnerable.'
'A lot of people don’t know their rights or have the capacity to defend themselves when given an incorrect debt. I don't think it's right that Centrelink comes after people for debts without being sure that they owe money, especially when it’s people who are in need of support who go to Centrelink in the first place.'
Ken's story – ‘They put me on a payment plan against my will’
'The robo-debt system is truly Orwellian. I have heard politicians say that you just need to call up Centrelink to fix your debt. Well I have been asking for proof of the alleged debt for over two years and I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it.
'My work is as a licensed rigger. This is often on big, potentially dangerous jobs that many people are unwilling to do. It involves construction or maintenance on bridges, towers, steel works or other large industrial plants. The nature of the work means short bursts of intense activity of up to 100 hours a week, followed by nothing.
'That is what the economics of the labor market demands and it’s the only way I can get paid work. I’ve always endeavored to declare my income to Centrelink. When I haven’t had the pay slips, I have tried to over-estimate the amount.
'So, you can imagine my surprise when I was told I owed over $7000 due to an alleged robo-debt. I thought that this was mistake. Surely a quick chat with Centrelink would clear this up? But it became clear to me that they were using a flawed methodology of income averaging because of an ignorance of the way the labor market works.
'When I informed Centrelink of this they were seemingly willfully ignorant. I asked them to prove the debt in a court of law. They were unwilling. They told me to provide bank statements. Historical bank statements are expensive - $4 per page over 12 months. This was money I didn’t have. I asked Centrelink for a billing address so they could pay, but they refused to do so. Almost two years ago they said they would contact my employer for payslips. They have not done this.
'It seems very unfair that they expect me to incur costs and do their work for free because they have an idea in their head about my income.
'Trying to go about disproving the alleged debt to Centrelink has been like talking to a brick wall. I have asked for records of my reporting and an explanation of the alleged debt and I’ve been told to make a FOI request. Every Freedom of Information request I put in they send me a load of gobbledygook that purports to be what I asked for, but it isn’t.
'If you want to talk to someone in person, the Compliance branch tells you to go to your local Centrelink office. Staff there are overworked and under the pump. They didn’t know anything about my circumstances and directed me to a telephone in the corner to talk to the compliance branch again.
'At this point Centrelink say they’ve done a reassessment and then a review of my alleged debt, but they’ve never attempted to prove to me how I owe any money to them. Their system is so opaque.
'They put me on a payment plan against my will. They sent a letter saying ‘we don’t expect you to pay more than you can afford’. On $225 a week how much could you afford to pay?
'They take a minimum of $15 per fortnight. Every three months I have to contact Centrelink to beg for it to not be raised to $85 a fortnight.
'One day a week I have my grandchildren so that my daughter-in-law can go to work. The eldest is at kinder. I feel it deeply in the pit of my stomach when I have to say to her, “Sorry darling we can’t get an ice-cream on the way home, let’s go and pick some herbs instead”.'
'Since I’ve been in this situation anytime I’ve gotten work I’ve physically gone into a Centrelink to confirm my income because I’m so worried that I could get another robo-debt.
'People attending this morning’s hearing would probably have used infrastructure to get to this venue that I’ve played a big part in building. I think I have contributed as a taxpayer and a citizen and I think it’s fair to ask for help from the government from time to time. I do not deserve to be treated the way robo-debt has treated me.
'I’m not doing this because I want Centrelink to wipe my debt, I want them to stop using averaging, which would never work for someone in my employment situation. I want them to cease and desist because this is hurting a lot of people.'
Janine's story – ‘That letter was the start of a hellish process’
I’m 64 years old. My husband died of cancer seven years ago in 2012. We had to use all of our savings to survive during that time and pay medical bills. I was also nursing my elderly mother with dementia. It was a really challenging time.
I’d never been on Centrelink before all that happened, but then I needed some support to get by. I was still working a day or two a week casually as well. If I could get more work, I would take it, but it’s difficult at my age to get people to give me more shifts.
This year, Centrelink sent me a letter saying I have a debt going all way the way back to 2014. That letter was the start of a hellish process. I don’t trust the Government anymore. Especially for an older person who has never had a debt to the government or anything like that, it’s just shocking.
I think our government should treat people fairly. It should have transparent and honest processes. You should be able to talk to a person on the phone who can explain what’s happened and tell you why you got this debt.
If you’ve made a mistake, then fair enough that you have to pay back money. But, with robo-debt, no one can explain whether you’ve made a mistake. No one tells you anything. They just say you’ve got a debt and you have to pay.
One time, I held on the phone from 3 pm until 5 pm just to talk to someone. Then, at 5 pm, the phone just disconnected and they said they were closing for the day and that I had to ring back the next day. It just feels awful to be treated like that.
It was only after I got help from Victoria Legal Aid that Centrelink actually got back to me. They did reduce the debt, but they still say I owe some money. I’m just paying it off now, because I’m scared of getting charged more fees.
You know, it's not the money, it's the principle. After a life of working and paying taxes, I didn’t expect to be treated like this. I felt totally intimidated by the government, instead of feeling like it’s ok to get a little support at this time in my life.
It's so hard to talk about it to other people, because everyone assumes you have done something wrong and the government wouldn't do this to people. I used to think that too.
But, now I know that the government tries to make people pay debts that they don’t understand and might not owe. It harasses and intimidates people. It’s just so upsetting.
Melissa's story – a private debt collector’s actions ‘doing my head in and making me suicidal’
Melissa is a single woman in her early 60s, who has worked most of her life in marketing and communications. She received a $15,000 debt out of the blue which she doesn’t understand and that she hasn’t received an explanation for.
When she first became aware of the alleged debt in January this year, she was ‘disheartened, on the brink of tears and very emotional. There was no explanation given, how it was arrived at that I owed money.’ She requested more information about it but has never received this. She did what she was told and tried to upload information from six temp agencies she had worked at, but the myGov website would not allow the upload of Excel documents. She posted the documents to Canberra in February 2019 and waited for an outcome. She is still waiting.
The next contact she had was from a debt collection agency. The calls were incessant. She was getting phone calls all the time and three text messages a day. She was desperate to make it stop as it was ‘doing my head in and making me suicidal’.
It was very difficult to get the debt collection activity to stop, despite the debt still being under consideration by Centrelink. She told the debt collection agency she was still providing information to Centrelink, but they told her that time had passed, and she needed to enter a repayment plan. When she spoke to Centrelink about getting the debt recalled from the debt collectors she was initially also told that it was ‘too bad’, she was too late, and she ‘should have acted’. They said that until she provided new information the debt would be pursued.
It was not until she was on a call with a Centrelink officer where debt collectors disrupted the call twice that Centrelink finally agreed to put a hold on any recovery action for six months. Trying to understand what had happened to the information she had already provided, she was finally told there were gaps in the information, so no action had been taken to reassess the debt. Instead of telling her this earlier, Centrelink had just referred the debt to a debt collection agency.
Finally, equipped with this information, she is now getting the extra documents Centrelink say they need to determine the debt amount.
Rachel's story – a grieving mother in a remote Aboriginal community confused by Centrelink correspondence
Rachel’s son, a young man, passed away in 2018 in traumatic circumstances. In mid-2019, Rachel received a letter from Centrelink addressed to her son’s estate. The letter demanded payment of a debt totalling $3300. In the same week, Rachel received a letter from Centrelink addressed to her late son, asking him to verify his employment records from 2013–2015.
Rachel lives in a remote Aboriginal community and has limited access to services. When NT Legal Aid visited Rachel’s community as part of its routine outreach work, Rachel approached lawyers, visibly distressed, saying:
‘I don’t know why Centrelink want to take money from son’.
NT Legal Aid are assisting Rachel to challenge the debt.
David's story – his tax incorrectly garnished
David is in his late 40s and has worked on and off in manufacturing jobs most of his life. He didn’t even know that Centrelink said he owed them money. The first he heard about it was when his tax return was taken to repay the alleged debt.
In July 2019, he filed his tax return, expecting a significant return. When the tax return came, he found out that Centrelink had taken most of the amount he was expecting to get.
David had to go through a complicated process of dealing with Centrelink to try and have the debt reviewed. He received mixed information and had to talk to multiple people.
Eventually, Centrelink told David that the debt was wrong and that they would repay him some of the money that they took from his tax return. Centrelink has repaid half of the money it took from his return.
It’s a nightmare and I’m struggling to see how it is legal. You just don’t go and garnish people’s tax return … It’s like someone stealing from you and then you have to prove that you don’t owe them anything.
The process is a merry-go-round and you get different information. I feel like I've made 50 phone calls.
Disclaimer: The material in this print-out relates to the law as it applies in the state of Victoria. It is intended as a general guide only. Readers should not act on the basis of any material in this print-out without getting legal advice about their own particular situations. Victoria Legal Aid disclaims any liability howsoever caused to any person in respect of any action taken in reliance on the contents of the publication.
We help Victorians with their legal problems and represent those who need it most. Find legal answers, chat with us online, or call us. You can speak to us in English or ask for an interpreter. You can also find more legal information at www.legalaid.vic.gov.au
Reviewed 05 May 2022