'Like a thief in the night'

Published On: Feb 17 2014 06:35:22 PM CST

Hutch man says IRS surprised him by collecting debt ... from 34 years ago


Imagine the government coming after you for an unpaid debt that's more than 30 years old.

A Hutchinson man says that's exactly what happened to him.  And the IRS took the money out of his 2013 tax refund.

 At first, Paul Mattox says he thought it was a bad joke. The tax refund he was counting on to pay bills was slashed by nearly 60 percent.

He went from an expected refund of just more than $2,000 to an actual refund of less than $860. And he had no idea why.

"I'm really truly baffled - and a little pissed - that the government can do this," Mattox told the FactFinder 12 Investigators.

After a bunch of calls, Mattox says he learned the Social Security Administration was collecting on an overpayment from at least 34 years ago - from when he was a child and received his father's death benefits.

The Investigators called and emailed the IRS and the US Treasury Department looking for answers. The agencies wouldn't talk about Paul Mattox's case specifically, but here's what we found out:

The IRS is authorized to collect debts on behalf of government agencies, including the Social Security Administration. It's called the treasury off-set program.

Once a debt is certified, the IRS can deduct your refund by the amount owed. The agency is required to notify you in writing. Mattox says that didn't happen in his case.

How far back can they go? There used to be a 10 year statute of limitations on these debts. But the Investigators found out the government changed that back in 2008.

It's tucked away on page 560 of a 629 page farm bill.  A small provision that reads: elimination of statute of limitations on collection of debt. Those few words allow the government to go as far back as it wants to see if you owe money.

"Is this how the government does it?" Mattox asks. "They come in in the middle of the night and poof - they're gone?"

Mattox can fill out a form to try and get his money back, but says he's reluctant to give the government all the personal information it's asking for.  

Who knows what else it might find?