James Fereira was a student at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts in 1979 when his father died at the age of 63. Fereira applied for, and received, $966.60 in survivor’s benefits from the Social Security Administration – a one-time payout.

Fereira, who now lives in Portland’s West End, didn’t give the money any further thought – until 34 years later.

In a letter dated Oct. 8, 2013, the Social Security Administration told him that he had been overpaid in 1979, and that several attempts by the government to collect the debt had been unsuccessful. The letter said the government had explained to Fereira how the overpayment occurred.

“I thought at first it was a joke, only it turned out not to be,” said Fereira, who says no one from the Social Security Administration ever tried to reach him.

Fereira knew the government was serious when it seized his 2013 federal income tax return, amounting to $741. He filed the return in February.

The Washington Post reported recently that the U.S. Treasury Department has intensified its efforts to collect old debts by seizing individuals’ state or federal tax returns. The newspaper reported that some of those debts were not incurred by those taxpayers, but by their parents or grandparents.

Since the effort began in 2011, the Treasury Department has collected $424 million in debts that were more than 10 years old. Those debts were owed to a variety of federal agencies. The ones that have caused the most controversy this tax season are debts owed to the Social Security Administration.

The Washington Post said the Treasury Department has identified about 400,000 Americans who it claims owe the Social Security Administration $714 million in debts that are more than 10 years old.

Many of the people whose refunds were seized had never heard of any debts, some of which date as far back as the middle of the last century.

Fereira said it’s only a matter of time before the government tries to recoup the $225 it says he still owes.

He did receive his full state income tax refund.

This week, a 58-year-old Maryland woman sued the Social Security Administration after the IRS seized her federal and state tax returns. The administration says it overpaid benefits to someone in her family – it’s unclear who – in 1977.

The woman alleges that the federal government violated her right to due process by holding her responsible for a $2,996 debt that was incurred under her father’s Social Security number.

Her father died in 1960, when she was 4, leaving her mother with five children to raise. Until the children turned 18, the mother received survivor benefits to feed and clothe them.

On Monday, acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin ordered a halt to further collection referrals under what is known as the Treasury Offset Program.

In an email to the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday, Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle said, “We have halted further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program … pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law to refer debt to the Treasury Department.”

“It’s important to understand that we do not use tax refund offset to collect the debt of a person’s relative. We only use it to collect the overpaid benefits the person received. We never retroactively attempt to recover from a child an overpayment made to their parent, unless that child (now an adult) is currently receiving benefits on the parent’s record,” Hinkle wrote.

Hinkle was unable to be more specific about how many Mainers will be affected by the collection effort.

The four members of Maine’s congressional delegation said Tuesday that they have not been contacted by any constituents whose tax refunds have been seized by the Treasury Department.

Fereira found out that his federal tax refund had been taken when he checked on the IRS website, which said his refund had been levied. It did not say which agency took his refund.

He has a meeting with a Social Security representative scheduled April 28 in Portland to discuss his case. In the meantime, all Fereira can do is mourn the loss of his tax refund.

“I am part of the working poor. I can’t afford an attorney,” said Fereira, who works as a customer service representative. “My refund is gone. I won’t be able to take the vacation I wanted to this spring. It’s infuriating.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report. 

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]