"They're going to kick me out of my own home," said Karl Berger, 86 years old. Karl is a widower with no living children. When Karl's wife died a couple of years ago, he told the Social Security Administration to stop sending monthly checks to his wife. But the agency continued to send the checks. Karl called again; a clerk said not to worry. He told Karl to mail a followup letter that included his wife's date of death. But the checks continued to come. Karl needed the money, so he cashed his wife's checks.
When SSA finally realized its mistake, it sent Karl a letter saying that he owed SSA $5,900 plus interest. Karl receives only $12,000 a year, which is slightly above poverty level. The only savings that he ever had -- $5,000 -- was spent on his wife's funeral. He fought on Iwo Jima, site of one of the most furious battles of World War II. The battle left him deaf in one ear and almost blind in one eye.
His small house used to be in a good neighborhood. He takes the bus once a week to visit his wife's grave. The rest of his time is spent at home, where he carves wooden military figures that he donates to a local charity. The charity sells the carvings and uses the money to help feed the homeless.
SSA gave Karl six months to pay the debt in full. Otherwise, the SSA letter said, the agency would seize his home. Karl wrote back, asking if it would be okay to pay $30 a month. That was all he could afford.
"That's insufficient," said William Shatner, an SSA agent. "We know that he is a war veteran, but that doesn't entitle him to free money. He knew that his wife was dead, yet he cashed her monthly checks. That is fraud, pure and simple."