I'm all for the government cracking down on collecting child support payments, and taking the money directly out of IRS payment seems like a winning plan. But the $2 billion that the government has collected so far isn't all from deadbeat dads. I, for instance, am part of the 39% of those who had money withheld for an unpaid federal debt. And I still don't know why.
I apparently owed the federal government $89.49 and they took it from my rebate check. I got a letter in the mail from the Department of the Treasury that told me, "As authorized by Federal law, we applied all or part of your Federal payment to a debt you owe." Then it gave an address and phone number for a Birmingham, Ala. processing center.
I called, of course, and all they could tell me is that the Transportation Security Administration had taken my money. They said they could give me their main number. They might as well have offered to give me the number for the White House to ask President Bush what was up with my payment. I didn't figure you could just call a mammoth government agency and get any kind of response.
But I did call and I got somebody and explained my situation. The catch here is that I once worked for the TSA. I spent six weeks as a federal baggage screener at La Guardia back in the winter of 2003 when I was a nearly-broke freelance writer without health insurance. The job was too physically demanding for me, and the hours (5 am to 11 am) were too awful, so I quit. Like any good journalist, I then wrote a story about it.
Presented with my phone options, I picked payroll and eventually got a live person who looked me up by my social security number and told me that the only notation in the file was that the $89.49 was an overpayment in salary. I had never received any documentation of any kind about this, yet my debt had gone into collection.
I haven't exactly been hiding from the government. I appeared on CNN, for one thing, talking about working for the TSA. Life just goes on. In the five years since I worked as a baggage screener, I got married, moved to Brooklyn and have had two children. I asked to dispute the charge and the woman on the phone took my information. She said it would take two weeks. That was nearly three months ago.
I'm usually tenacious in these situations, but there seems to be nothing much to do when the government decides you owe it money.