Bamboozled: A $59,000 mistake

Angelina Maria Colabella doesn’t have to pay.BB branding

Earlier this month, Colabella, who receives Social Security disability benefits, received a letter from Social Security. It said through the years, the agency had overpaid Colabella nearly $59,000 and she had 30 days to pay it back.

Colabella had her meeting with the agency and it reviewed her case.

“Social Security reversed its decision in my favor,” Colabella said. “I’m just thrilled. I don’t have to worry anymore.”

At question was whether or not Colabella, a West Paterson resident who works part time at a job that pays $8.76 an hour, had earned too much money to qualify for continuing benefits.

Turns out she didn’t.

52510“There was a string of times she went over one month or more, but by averaging the year she was under,” said Bill Hayden, an attorney with the Community Health Law Project, who represented Colabella at the SSA meeting. “It never should have gotten that far.”

We asked Hayden how, in his opinion, Social Security could let this kind of error occur. If the agency thought Colabella was overpaid a few thousand dollars, okay, maybe. But $59,000? If it had been accurate, that would have been years and years of overpayments before anyone noticed a problem.

Hayden said mistakes like this are not uncommon in his experience. He said there is a delay before Social Security receives a beneficiary’s earnings records, but usually only a year or two.

‘‘For this, someone went back 10 years to retroactively do it,” he said.

SSA runs on numbers, he said, and he said the agency’s yardstick for success is what percentage of cases are cleared in under 10 days, under 20 days, etc., and how many are still pending after 30 or 60 days.

‘‘The employees are under a lot of pressure to get rid of cases before they get ‘too old,’” he said. ‘‘Doing things quickly has become the administration’s idea of service to the public. At least that’s what they’re selling.’’

Social Security had no comment on Hayden’s observation, but spokesman John Shallman said, “We certainly apologize for any inconvenience and difficulties we may have created in this case.’’

Shallman urged recipients who are ready to start work again to contact the agency.

“Make us your partner and let us help and advise you as you navigate the comprehensive work incentive rules,’’ he said.

Colabella works fewer hours now so this isn’t likely to happen again, but she’s prepared, just in case. She’ll know what to expect and rather than panic, she’ll head for another meeting with her local Social Security office.

‘‘I feel relieved,’’ Colabella said. ‘‘I probably would have tried to give $10 a month or something for the rest of my life.’’


Bamboozled was contacted by two more EPPICard users who reported trouble with Affiliated Computer Services, or ACS, the company that manages the EPPICard benefit card for New Jersey and 15 other states.

Rosemarie Harris of Brooklyn, N.Y., found her EPPICard balance wiped out in August.

She contacted ACS and explained to a rep that funds were missing.

‘‘She told me clearly it was fraud because there were so many declines,’’ Harris said, which indicated someone tried over and over to use the account number. ‘‘They tried to pay their cell phone bill with T-Mobile and it was declined, and other bills, too.’’

Harris, 55, who receives child support payments on her EPPICard, submitted the required fraud paperwork and was hopeful her funds would be restored.

But no.

She instead received a letter stating her request was denied, and she was told to contact the merchants directly.

Rewind: Previously, ACS has told Bamboozled — several times — that cardholders do not have to contact merchants directly in fraud cases, yet ACS continues to tell complainants to do so.

After the denial, Harris said, she sent ACS several requests to reconsider, including a certified letter that was sent “return receipt requested.” ACS didn’t respond to her requests.

Harris contacted Bamboozled, and we gave ACS a shout.

For privacy reasons, the company wouldn’t discuss Harris’ case, but the fraudulent charges, totaling $382.90, were deleted from her account within a few days.

‘‘I don’t understand how they operate,’’ said Harris.

Harris’ experience was textbook and just like those described by the five other women we’ve featured here. The fraud claim was quite clear, she did everything ACS asked, yet she was denied and told to contact the merchants. Then when Bamboozled called, the money was restored quickly and without question.

We were also contacted by Lucero Bernal of Dunellen, who visited an ATM in January to withdraw $60 from her EPPICard. The machine was out of cash, the screen said, so Bernal went to another machine.

The second machine said there was not enough money in the account. When Bernal called EPPICard, the rep said $60 was docked from her account, even though the first machine didn’t dispense any.

ACS looked into it, and in February, Bernal received a letter saying her account would be credited the $60. It wasn’t.

She called and was told to complete paperwork. She did, but then ACS said it hadn’t received it. She checked the address and resubmitted, but again, ACS said it never received it.

She did it again in March. And twice in April.


But when Bamboozled called, the funds were restored within a couple of days.

Again, it seems the fraud department at ACS is quick to say no to customers, or it at the very least has significant organizational challenges. Yet, when we ask ACS to re-examine a case, it finds in favor of the customer, and quickly.

We’ve asked New Jersey, which has several contracts with ACS (worth more than $34 million in 2009 alone), to renegotiate EPPICard’s high fees and lock down a better deal for customers.

We’re also asking the state to inquire about what’s going on in the ACS fraud department.

Negotiations are underway and should extend over the next month or so, said Treasury spokesman Andrew Pratt.

‘‘There are several contracts that the state has with the company and they’re being linked together so there are a lot of moving parts,’’ Pratt said. ‘‘In the end, we will reach a better deal for people who receive services through ACS.”

Let’s hope so. We’re eager to hear some good news.