PCA Version 3.0

PCA Version 3.0

Are you ready for PCA version 3.0? For the third time in the history of the Internal Revenue Service, the government approved (and in certain instances mandated) the usage of private collection agencies (PCAs) for the purpose of assisting with the collection of federal taxes. The provision is part of some new highway funding legislation called the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation).

The use of PCAs in the collection of tax revenue is controversial. First, and perhaps foremost, the IRS has not been able to show that it actually works — that is, they have not shown that it is cost effective to hire these outside private collection firms. The last time the IRS integrated PCA firms into their collection processes was in 2006/2007. Some will argue that the IRS was able to collect billions of dollars that they otherwise would not have collected with their limited resources. Some contend that the fees charged by the PCA firms cancel out most of the revenue they collected. I don’t know who is right, but one fact cannot be ignored: the IRS discontinued the program after only a couple years. If it were such a wild success, I am certain the government would have found a way to make it last.

Another argument against PCAs is the risk that they will engage in abusive collection tactics. I think this is a legitimate concern, but I personally do not have this fear. I remember PCA version 2.0 back in 2007 and the private collectors that I dealt with were much more civil than the IRS ever was.

There are some tax professionals (and probably even more concerned taxpayers) who really dislike the idea of giving sensitive information to PCA firms. We have seen how the IRS has struggled with safeguarding sensitive taxpayer data, and they’ve had 100 years to try to get it right. So the thought of the IRS turning over social security numbers to a less-experienced private collection firm is rather disconcerting.

Besides these well-documented concerns, what I experienced first-hand in 2007 was that the PCA firms were not given authority to fully resolve certain tax accounts, which caused unnecessary delays and heightened taxpayer frustration. Imagine getting a letter from a PCA firm and then calling them only to find out that your case will have to be referred back to the IRS. The IRS is already notorious for red tape and delays, and if its anything like 2007, I fear this new legislation will only makes things worse.

Taxpayer Advocate Says IRS Needs to Shift Focus Away from Collections

National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, recently submitted her mid-year report to Congress.  It is nothing incredibly new, I suppose, except that IRS’ 2015 tax season numbers are completely off the charts (and not in a good way).  Here are some key points:

  • 8.8 million dropped calls due to switchboard overload
  • only 37% of customer service calls were actually answered
  • average hold time was 23 minutes
  • less than 10% of customer service calls answered during peak of tax season

Olson’s preface is a pleasure to read.  Its brilliant, and yet so simple.  She acknowledges the lack of funding that the IRS has had to deal with over the past few years, and she astutely points out that, while difficult, periods of famine (so to speak) can be healthy if they cause you (or an organization such as the IRS) to rethink its priorities and to rethink the way funds are allocated.  The operative phrase here is that it can be healthy.  In her own words:

But from a taxpayer perspective, I am concerned its long-term approach is headed in the wrong direction. First, the IRS continues to view itself as an enforcement agency first and a service agency second. Enforcement is important, of course, but it is a question of emphasis and self-definition. Second, the IRS’s vision of the future rests on a mistaken assumption that it can save dollars and maintain voluntary compliance by automating taxpayer service and issue resolution and getting out of the business of dealing with taxpayers directly in person or by phone.

What the IRS should do during this period of congressional distrust and resulting inadequate funding is examine every one of its underlying principles. In my view, it should transform itself as a tax agency from one that is designed around nabbing the small percentage of the population that actively evades tax to one that aims first and foremost to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of taxpayers who are trying to comply with the tax laws.

The truth is, most people pay their taxes voluntarily, but the IRS has always been laser focused on collection and enforcement.  Olson is right.  As the IRS continues to put taxpayer service on the back burner, the whole idea of voluntary compliance becomes more tenuous.  And I don’t think Olson is saying that enforcement has no place in our tax system.  There will always be a need for enforcement.  But the focus needs to shift so that it is not the top priority.

One of my mentors taught me how to operate a well-balanced law practice.  He taught me to see it as both a service and a business, and to never lose sight of both.  If you focus too much on the business, then you do your clients a disservice.  And if you fail to give attention to the business aspects, then you won’t earn a decent living.

The IRS is really no different.  As Nina Olson said, they are too focused on the “business” of enforcement and the service side is suffering.  But the great thing about both a law practice and the IRS is, when you give enough attention to the service aspect so that the clients/taxpayers are satisfied, the revenue will come.

IRS Achieved Record Collections Despite Reduced Staff

Everybody thought that the IRS would be incapable of collecting as much tax revenue as years past with a reduced work force.  The loudest voices crying for a bigger tax collection budget came from within the IRS and from the Taxpayer Advocate.  The prevailing thought was that the IRS was just going to have to do more with less.  And apparently that’s just what they did.

According to a report released today by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), in 2013 the IRS increased total gross collections by 13 percent compared to 2012.  The IRS collected an unfathomable $2.9 trillion in fiscal year 2013, including $50.2 billion from enforced collections such as wage garnishments, bank levies, and seizures.  Interestingly these numbers were achieved with fewer examinations, fewer tax liens, and fewer levies & seizures.  It is difficult to tell what all this means.  Maybe the IRS is less likely to nail people for making mistakes on their taxes, filing late, and paying late.  But I think it is also safe to say that when they do catch you, they really sink their teeth in.  Maybe you think you’re safe because the IRS has bigger fish to fry, but if this report is any indication, I think the IRS is casting smaller nets and throwing fewer back.

Will the IRS Bring Back Private Debt Collections?

Somebody has sneaked some terrible legislation into a provision of the EXPIRE Act which, if approved, would require the IRS to hire outside private debt collection (PDC) firms to collect past due taxes.  If this sounds familiar it is because the IRS has already tried this a couple times with very little success.  These are just some of the problems that tax practitioners have identified with hiring private debt collectors to collect income taxes:

  • The IRS must hand over sensitive taxpayer information (like social security numbers) which raises concerns about privacy and identity theft.  Just like a juicy bit of gossip, the more people you tell, the greater the risk of the information spreading to the wrong people or groups.  No amount of training can ensure this won’t happen.
  • If private collection agencies are hired on a contingency basis, their motivation to collect may be higher than your average IRS employee who is paid the same regardless of how much revenue is collected.
  • Although private collection agencies would be given access to some key pieces of information, not all tax account information would be available.  This means that the taxpayer would be required to go back to the IRS anyway, to confirm what the PDC firm has done and tie up any loose ends.

I definitely saw this in my practice during the second trial run of this program 6-7 years ago.  The PDC firms were not given authority to enter into certain installment agreements, so we would have to get cases transferred back to the IRS in most cases.  Using private collection firms only complicates things at the IRS and creates bottlenecks at an agency that is already known for being a little slow.  The good thing is that many, if not most, stakeholders and authorities oppose this legislation, including the National Conference of CPA Practitioners (NCCPAP), the Taxpayer Advocate, the IRS Oversight Board, and the Commissioner himself.

Only federal employees, who have been screened and vetted through the Internal Revenue Service, should be permitted to represent the federal government in matters pertaining to individual taxes.

~ Steven Mankowski, NCCPAP Tax Policy Committee chair

Blocking IRS Collections

If you do not develop a plan for dealing with your tax debt, the IRS will find a way to collect what you owe one way or another.  One way the IRS does it is through enforced collection actions such as wage garnishment, interception of federal and state refunds, levy on federal benefits like Social Security, bank levy, and seizure of property.  The IRS also encourages and persuades folks to voluntarily comply with tax laws through public outreach campaigns, phone calls, and letters.  Of course, those “nice guy” techniques only get them so far.  There are several different ways to block IRS collection efforts, but some I cannot recommend because they are illegal.


  • pay what you owe
  • set up an installment agreement
  • prove hardship
  • file an Offer in Compromise

Not Recommended

  • hide assets
  • bribe an IRS revenue officer
  • give false information
  • dump a pile of dirt in front of an IRS revenue officer to prevent them from getting near your assets

Let me be perfectly clear.  I include the “not recommended” list only to give you a keen understanding of what you should not do.  And the dirt dumping sounds like a ridiculous example, but it really happened.  The guy that did it was sentenced to three years of probation just last week.  In an attempt to collect unpaid taxes from 45-year-old Walter M. Trizila, IRS revenue officers visited his property to see if there were any assets worth seizing.  The IRS set its sights on a certain dump truck, but Trizila didn’t want to part with it.  He entered a front-end loader, charged at the revenue officers, and then dumped a mound of dirt between them and his truck.

Trizila is apparently a very literal kind of guy.  He knew he had to “block” IRS collections and he did it the only way he knew how.  Unfortunately for him, it resulted in a misdemeanor conviction for assault, resisting or impeding a federal officer.

More Aggressive Collection Trend at IRS

In a report released publicly this week, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) stated that taxpayer satisfaction should be a factor in measuring the effectiveness of the IRS Collections Department.  I like to think the IRS will also be concerned with the satisfaction levels of taxpayers’ representatives.  In all my years of practice, I have never been asked about how satisfied I was with the interactions I had with a call center employee.  I have never been asked to complete a satisfaction survey at the conclusion of a revenue officer case.  But, maybe things are going to change.

Although they would have you believe otherwise, based on my experience, the IRS is primarily concerned with collecting revenue.  Afterall, just how effective would Collections be if they focused mainly on customer satisfaction?  The report doesn’t seek to conceal this fact.  Here are some interesting statistics that caught my eye:

  • The average dollars collected per revenue officer was 14 percent higher in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 than in FY 2009.
  • The dollars collected through installment agreements in FY 2011 were 32 percent higher than the amount collected in FY 2009.
  • Overall, the total dollars collected in FY 2011 were 20 percent higher than the amount collected in FY 2009 even though there were fewer revenue officers on staff.

This is not the best news for those with unpaid taxes.  When revenue officers go about collecting dollars, they do so through asset seizures, wage garnishments, bank levies, etc.  So the fact that this statistic is on the rise, I think tells us something about the aggressiveness of IRS collections, especially because they’re doing it with fewer people these days.

The Tax Collection Pendulum

They say that clothing fashions tend to repeat themselves over time.  My 20-year-old Metallica T-shirt?  Retro.  Grandma’s 70-year-old dress? Vintage.

Much like the inner-workings of the IRS, right?  Yeah, sort of.  Anyone who has worked in the tax relief industry long enough has seen IRS collection efforts intensify and diminish in repeating cycles over the years.  Well, some believe that the IRS audit pendulum is tipped one way or another depending on the political party of the president.  And I think it’s safe to say that more audits means more revenue collected.

According to the 2005 dissertation by Valentin Estévez at the University of Chicago:

  • Under Democratic presidencies the audit rate of income tax returns is higher than under Republican presidencies even after the inclusion of various political and economic controls.
  • But, during Democratic presidencies the I.R.S. tends to audit fewer individual returns and more corporate returns than during Republican presidencies.

Casey Mulligan, New York Times blogger, agrees.  In fact, he claims that IRS statistics released since 2005 have further supported Estévez’ position.  See full story here.

The IRS “Pendulum”

If we were to step back and take a look at the history of IRS collection efforts (wage garnishment, bank levy, seizure of assets, etc.), we would see that it has not been consistent in its use of all available collection tools.

Longtime observers of our federal tax system note sagely that there are recurrent pendulum swings.  For some years, the IRS will be encouraged to collect, collect, collect, and inevitably be admired for its toughness perhaps earning an accolade: ruthless.  Then, after a few too many citizens have rugs pulled from under them, Congress and the Executive Branch will rebuke the IRS.  Telling the IRS how mean and inappropriate it is, Congress will cut back on the agency’s authority and make it play nice.

~ Robert W. Wood, Forbes Contributor

Wood goes on to explain that the pendulum swung to the far “NICE” side in the late 1970s. Then it swung back to the “RUTHLESS” side by the 1990s. Then back to “NICE” in the late 1990s. So is there any question where we stand today?

 [T]he pendulum has again swung the other way.  The economy is hurting, revenues are declining and wells are drying up.  Facing budget cuts and revenue shortfalls everywhere, the IRS is on a mission to collect, collect, collect.

~ Robert W. Wood, Forbes Contributor

Wood sees the IRS getting tougher on criminal investigations and even regular collection cases. For example, primary residences and retirement accounts have always been “fair game” technically, but in reality the IRS usually doesn’t have the heart to take them. Not now, according to Wood. See full story here.

Non-FTB Tax Collectors

If you live in California, the tax man who comes pounding unexpectedly on your door to collect overdue state taxes might not be a tax man at all.  The California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) hires private collecting agencies (PCAs) to do some of their dirty work for them.  FTB says they keep a close eye on their PCAs to ensure they are treating taxpayers fairly and safeguarding their private information.

The IRS has tried this in the past too with limited success.  My own personal experience with the PCAs hired by the IRS was that they were given so very little authority to actually resolve cases that it seemed a waste of time and resources.  The IRS initiated PCA contracts in 2006, but discontinued the program in early 2009 due to pressure from advocacy groups who said the collection practices were often abusive.  Also, the PCAs weren’t as effective as expected, meaning they didn’t collect as much revenue as their public counterparts.

California’s New and Improved “Top 250 List”

Normally “first place” is a position that many aspire to.  Unless you occupy the first spot on California’s Top 250 Delinquent Taxpayers list.

California tax collectors (employees of the Franchise Tax Board) have a reputation for being, how shall we say this, . . . very zealous in their duties.  The FTB stops at nothing to collect overdue taxes, even rivaling the efforts and tactics of the IRS.  One of the ways California encourages tax compliance is by publishing its annual “Top 250 Delinquent Taxpayers” list on its website as a type of public shaming exercise.  Right now the winners are Halsey & Shannon Minor of Los Angeles who owe exactly $14,247,341.09 in personal income taxes.  Apparently nobody in the entire state of California owes more state taxes than they do.

But even if you’re at the bottom of the list, the consequences are the same.  And now, with the passage of AB 1421, it’s more than just the tax bill and the shame. Consequences now include having your drivers license, and possibly professional license, suspended.  Also, the list will be doubled so that it includes the top 500 worst offenders.  The author of the bill, Henry Perea, has strong words for California’s top 500:

Everyone on this list has had a chance to work with the state to resolve their tax issues but have chosen instead to bury their heads in the sand and continue to spend lavishly.

But I wonder how accurate that statement is.  According to the FTB website, the only criteria for inclusion on the list is that the taxpayer owes over $100,000 and falls into the top 250 (now 500).  The oldest tax liens were filed in 1996, but many of them were just filed last year.  At any rate, California has sent a clear message to the wealthiest taxpayers in the elite neighborhoods of LA and San Francisco.  Now they should try to get that message to the masses to make it really effective.