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More people than ever are getting a "Gotcha" in the mail this year instead of a state tax refund check, proving to taxpayers that delinquency doesn't pay, a state official said.

And, for the first time, people who owe money to five failed thrift associations are among those getting stung.Under the "Gotcha" program, started in 1980, a computer in the state's Finance Division matches a list of people who owe the state money with a list of people who filed income-tax returns this year and are expecting refunds.

The idea is for the state to take whatever is owed out of the checks it sends back.

In the first half of 1988, the program already has collected $3.8 million, more than it did during all of 1987. Burke Tangren, Gotcha coordinator, said Wednesday the program should collect about $4.5 million by the end of the year.

"The computer shows no favorites," Tangren said. "We've intercepted refunds for legislators and government officials. No one can escape it."

Tangren said Gov. Norm Bangerter asked the division to withhold money from people who have outstanding loans with thrift associations that have failed. The money likely will be used in an eventual settlement with angry depositors.

Tangren had no explanation for the dramatic overall increase in the amount of money being withheld.

"I like to think it's because we're getting better," he said. But the increase could be due to recent changes in the tax structure that have resulted in more tax refunds. Tangren said the state is giving 100,000 more refunds this year than last.

Most of the money is being collected from people who have failed to make child support payments, failed to pay bail or other court fees or who owe money on student loans.

Tangren said the state is questioning between 6 percent and 8 percent of the refunds requested.

Taxpayers can appeal the procedure. "We preserve the individual's rights," Tangren said.

But when the money is withheld, the state keeps a little extra to pay the administrative costs of "Gotcha," he said.

Since it began eight years ago, the program has collected $24.5 million that otherwise would have been lost, Tangren said.