IRS says its own mistake meant foreign nationals living overseas were sent $1,200 stimulus checks

Stimulus checks of $1,200 from the U.S. government were mistakenly sent out this year to foreign citizens living abroad and with only tenuous connections to the United States, it has emerged – and the problem will likely happen again.

The one-off payment was approved in March, as part of the CARES Act, which also provided support for small businesses.

The idea was to get the money quickly to ease suffering, and experts admitted at the time that there would be some errors made. It was sent to all U.S. tax payers earning under $99,000.

Stimulus checks of $1,200 to aid those struggling during the pandemic were send in the spring

Stimulus checks of $1,200 to aid those struggling during the pandemic were send in the spring

When the news broke in August that some foreign citizens not living in the U.S. had received checks, the IRS said that they had likely filed incorrect tax returns.

But on Monday it was reported that even people with only decades-old links to the U.S. had received the money, without asking for it.

Among them was a Swedish woman, living in Stockholm, who had  

Susanne Wigforss, 78, who had worked in California for several years and so receives a small Social Security payment.

In July she received a $1,200 check in the mail, plus a letter from Donald Trump which opened: ‘My fellow American’.

Susanne Wigforss, 78, was among those to mistakenly receive a check

Susanne Wigforss, 78, was among those to mistakenly receive a check 

‘I thought, ‘I can’t believe it,’ ‘ she told NPR. 

‘They’re sending it to me. Why? I mean, it’s crazy, isn’t it?’ 

The IRS admitted to NPR it mistakenly sent checks to some noncitizens who receive Social Security and other federal benefits, such as Wigforss.

‘This is so wrong,’ she said. ‘Because I saw that a number of people were being evicted every month in Chicago, for instance, and I thought one of those families would have needed this stimulus check. 

‘Why should a Swedish citizen living abroad receive $1,200?’

She said she was trying to find a way to return the cash.

‘There’s no way I’m going to cash this money – it doesn’t belong to me. 

‘But how much money is bleeding out from the Treasury Department because of these stimulus checks, I wonder?’

Wigforss, who lives in Stockholm, said she was shocked to receive a check from the Treasury

Wigforss, who lives in Stockholm, said she was shocked to receive a check from the Treasury

Another to receive the check was Van Stockley, 74, who was born in Pennsylvania but left the U.S. for Australia more than 50 years ago and has renounced his citizenship.

He left because he was disappointed by U.S. politics in the 1960s, and hasn’t set foot in the country in 40 years. 

‘I had always been depressed when JFK was killed,’ he explained. 

‘I just couldn’t get over that, so I started looking for someplace else [to] start all over.’

He, too, received stimulus money, even though he is not eligible for it and does not file a U.S. tax return.

‘That was the weirdest thing ever,’ he recalled. ‘I checked the mail and I pulled out a check. It had a Federal Reserve/Treasury thingamajig on it with the eagle and all that. It’s made out to me. 

‘I thought: ‘What’s it from – America? What the hell’s going on here? Why am I getting a check from the government?’ ‘

He believes that he, like Wigforss, mistakenly got a check because he receives Social Security, from having worked in the U.S. before moving overseas.

‘At first, I thought it was a joke and then I went down to the bank and I said, ‘Do you have some way of verifying that this is legal?’ And the girl came back after five minutes and said, ‘It’s legal. You got the money.’

‘I didn’t ask for the money. I didn’t expect any money. 

‘But as soon as I got it, I stuck it in the bank. You ain’t getting it back!’

He attributes the mistake to U.S. government incompetence.

‘Oh, complete stupidity. They’re just not doing their job properly,’ Shockley said. 

‘But I’m not complaining totally because I was happy with the money!’

The IRS (pictured) has not put into place any provisions to stop the same mistake happening

The IRS (pictured) has not put into place any provisions to stop the same mistake happening

Nearly $1.4 billion in stimulus checks were sent to dead Americans as well as those uneligible

Nearly $1.4 billion in stimulus checks were sent to dead Americans as well as those uneligible

The scale of the problem is unclear. Nearly $1.4 billion in stimulus checks were sent to dead Americans, and the IRS has confirmed to NPR that it has not put any changes in place to prevent it happening in the future.

A second stimulus check could be sent out before Christmas, and those that mistakenly received it in the spring will likely get it again. 

One company which assists with U.S. tax preparation for those living abroad, Sprintax, said that they have clients from about 150 countries who mistakenly received stimulus checks.

The most common countries were India, China, South Korea, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, as well as numerous nations in Latin America, said Enda Kelleher, a vice president at the company. 

‘I think the poor folks in the IRS don’t have the bandwidth to go chasing this, but it would be great if they did, because I believe that there’s millions of dollars that have gone to people that weren’t entitled to it, or they’re certainly not the intended recipients.’

He added: ‘It’s awful when we hear of millions of dollars going into the wrong hands, but it was probably within a somewhat acceptable threshold of error or margin of error.’

Those eligible for the stimulus check are also likely able to apply for unemployment, if they have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, expands states’ ability to provide unemployment insurance for many workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including for workers who are not ordinarily eligible for unemployment benefits. 

The amount paid depends on how much an individual has earned over the previous 52 weeks.

An additional $600 a week was paid, until the end of July.

In August there was no additional funding, but from September an additional $300 a week has been paid. 

A study from The Century Foundation in mid November found 12 million people will lose their federal and state unemployment benefits on December 26 unless another stimulus bill is passed.

President-elect Joe Biden has already released his economic recovery plan, but he does not take office until January 20. 

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