In March we told you about a computer glitch that caused Uncle Sam to send Social Security payments up to $5,000 too big to about 2,000 Americans. The Health and Human Services Department says it has managed to get most of that back, but now it's going after another $3.1 billion it says it is owed from delinquent loans and overpayments to states and private contractors, among others. This new get-tough policy, announced this week by Secretary Richard S. Schweiker, involves bringing in private debt collecters and charging interest of 13.5 to 14.5 percent on money owed HHS.

"It is unfair to taxpayers and to those who depend on HHS programs when persons who owe the government money do not repay it," Schweiker said. The Social Security Administration will not be able to collect interest on back debts until it publishes regulations and goes through a required waiting period for public comment. But the new policy will affect several other programs immediately.

HHS said it will supervise the debt collectors and that their policies "must be fair and reasonable, and must not involve harassment, intimidation and false or misleading representations." Social Security back debts can be collected by deductions from monthly benefit checks, but officials stressed that the repayment can be waived in hardship cases.