The state has sent erroneous letters to about 1,000 Maine residents demanding immediate payment of past income taxes, penalties and interest that aren’t actually owed, Maine Revenues Services confirmed Monday.

Two residents provided copies of the letters, dated Jan. 2, to the Portland Press Herald. The letters called for those residents to pay thousands of dollars by Jan. 17, and threatened to garnish their wages or seize their property if payment was not made.

“These debts are final … payment of these amounts is long overdue,” the letters said.

“I spent all weekend stressing about it,” said Jamin Brown of Saco, who got one of the letters. “I called Monday morning, and the state said they had gotten more than 200 calls about these letters by 9 a.m.”

The error happened as the state upgraded its software to a more modern system, said David Heidrich, a spokesman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which includes Maine’s tax agency. When any software changes are made, the state tests the system, including printing test letters at a state facility.

A first batch of 3,500 test letters containing incorrect information – and printed on pink paper – was destroyed. A second batch of test letters was printed on white paper, and 1,000 of them were mistakenly mailed to residents, Heidrich said.

The only clues that the letters might have been sent in error were the names on the address labels, which included incorrect middle initials or last names, said the two residents. Heidrich said some letters had accurate address labels.

Stephen Wells of Cumberland, who also got one of the letters, said he believes the state now owes him another letter saying he is free and clear of any wrongdoing or debt.

“I would think the right thing to do would be for the state to be proactive and reach out to everyone who got letters. They shouldn’t just say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake. Throw the letter away,’ ” said Wells. “I wonder how many people just sent a check out of fear. I wonder how long it will take them to get their money back.”

The state said it doesn’t know who received the incorrect letters, so it’s impossible to contact residents proactively, Heidrich said.

“A lot of taxpayers have reached out to us, so we’re aware of some,” he said.

Maine Revenue Services may send residents who contact the agency a letter confirming that an error was made and no payments are due, Heidrich said, but the final decision on how to handle the error has not been made.

To prevent future problems, the state will print test letters with “Not to be mailed” on the top of the page, Heidrich said. No similar problems have occurred in recent memory, he said.

Anyone who makes a payment in response to an incorrect letter will get a refund from the state within one to two weeks, Heidrich said. Any resident who made a payment and wants to speed up their refund can call 626-8475.

The test letters never entered the state’s accounting system, so residents won’t get second notices if they ignore the incorrect ones, Heidrich said. “This was strictly a one-time accident,” he said.

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, said Monday that she hadn’t heard about the error and had not been in contact with MRS, but she expects the agency to work fast to make good.

“I anticipate them to respond very quickly and resolve the problem. I would expect nothing else,” Haskell said. “They have always been willing to answer questions, and I expect they will in this case, as well.”

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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Twitter: @JessicaHallPPH