IRS Gives Private Debt Collection Firms More Power

The IRS is constantly coming up with new convenient payment options for taxpayers with back tax debts. As we know, the IRS is always so very concerned about the taxpayer, and they like to be as generous and accommodating as possible. Payment option language takes up some of the most prominent positions in collection notices. And clicking that “Pay” tab on the IRS website reveals no less than seven different payment options. Of course, when my clients tell me that they don’t know how they’re going to pay their tax bill, its usually not because they can’t decide between writing a check or paying in cash. As usual, the IRS is missing the point and still thinking inside the box, and their latest attempt to beef up collections from people who can’t pay is very concerning to me. The IRS is now allowing private debt collection firms that have contracted with the federal government to accept payments from taxpayers (see IRS News Release IR-2019-165, October 8, 2019).

The IRS has tried using private debt collection agencies (PCAs) off and on, unsuccessfully, but never before have they been authorized to accept payments. There are concerns that these programs often cost more than the revenue collected. There are concerns from the National Taxpayer Advocate and others within the industry about security of information and violation of taxpayer rights by employees who do not have the same ethical standards as the IRS (Did I just suggest that the IRS has standards?). And probably the most glaring problem I see is a potential diluting of the message that the IRS and others (myself included) have been preaching for years: you don’t send federal tax payments to anyone other than the IRS/Department of Treasury.

It’s no secret that some people have a hard time distinguishing between communications from the IRS and communications from scammers. I think it muddies the waters a bit now that it is permissible to give credit card info to Pioneer Credit Recovery, for example, besides the IRS. No longer is there a bright line rule about sharing sensitive information. For the record, there are only four potential PCAs that have contracts with the IRS: Pioneer, CBE, Performant, and ConServe. But if it is difficult for some to distinguish between the IRS and criminal IRS impersonators, then it’s only that much harder to distinguish between authorized third-party collection agencies and their unauthorized criminal counterparts. Even the IRS seems to acknowledge the added risk to taxpayers since a good portion of their news release appears under the subheading “Be aware of scammers.”

The IRS promises that PCA employees will not make threatening calls and that they will abide by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, but how much oversight and control do they really have over these private firms and their employees? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know how well-trained and well-behaved actual IRS employees are who work under the same roof as their supervisors, so I can only imagine.

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