IRS Fails Taxpayers Again in 2015

Based on the interim report published by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the IRS achieved a 38.5 percent Level of Service and a 24.6 average hold time on IRS phone lines during the 2015 filing season.  I don’t really know what Level of Service entails, but I know that 38 percent is really only good if we’re talking batting average.  You may be wondering, “How do you get such a low score?  I could probably score higher than 38 percent on a test by guessing.”  Well, this is how: you get 45.6 million phone calls and you answer only 4.2 million of them.  BAM.  Done.

Read the report.  It will make you cringe.

Short Hold Times at IRS Today

Modesto, CA

I only spent about two minutes on the phone with the IRS today.  That’s a first.

I was on and off just like that, and then I went on with my day.  The reason why it was so quick is because THEY DIDN’T TAKE MY CALL.  You know things are bad when they won’t even allow you to wait on hold.  Last week we were experiencing two hour hold times.  Actually, it could have been longer, but the longest I waited (and still didn’t get help) was two hours.  But this week they don’t even want you to bother holding.  After selecting my topic (“discuss a client’s tax account”) the recording on the Practitioner Priority Line states something like “We’re sorry, but due to extremely high call volumes and the topic you requested, we are unable to take your call at this time.  Please try again later, or on the following business day.”

It has always bothered me when I am in a store asking for help or waiting to make a purchase (almost any type of store; they’re all basically the same) and then the phone rings, and the worker immediately picks up the phone and helps the caller despite the fact that I am present in the store.  I have noticed that they will normally give preference to the caller over the person who is there in person.  Not so with the IRS.

Well, to be fair, I don’t think they get foot traffic at the IRS call centers.  I’m pretty sure that the call centers are just for calls and the walk-in centers are just for walk-ins and appointments.  But realizing this only makes me madder that they can’t answer my call.  They don’t have to divide their attention between callers and walk-ins.  There’s no excuse!  HOWEVER, as much as I love to complain about the IRS and the pathetic state of their call centers, I like my chances on the phone even better than at our local office.

If anyone near Modesto wants to take their chances at the IRS local office, be my guest.  They are at 1700 Standiford Ave. and they are open Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 4:30.  And the Sacramento office is still at 4330 Watt Ave.  Same hours of operation.

Testing My Theory

Apparently it wasn’t only me who thought the new Practitioner Priority Service (PPS) guidelines were ambiguous.  I don’t think the PPS customer service reps understand them either.  The best I could tell, I thought that they would be checking qualifications more closely, maybe even refusing to speak with anybody lacking a duly executed power of attorney.

It wasn’t long before I was able to test my theory.  Here’s how my first post-Jan. 6th PPS call went:

IRS: “How can I help you today, Mr. Wetenkamp?”

ME: “It’s my first call on this case; can you just give me an account overview such as balances due, missing returns, collection status, etc.?”

IRS: “Oh no, we can’t help you with that sort of thing anymore.  As of January 6, 2014 we are only allowed to assist you with active tax issues.”


IRS: “Uh, . . . well, . . . yes.”

When the IRS makes informal procedure adjustments it is usually impossible to tell how they will materialize at the individual call centers.  For one thing, call center managers do not always interpret internal memoranda uniformly, so it is common to have slight variations from one city to the next.  But even if all IRS managers agreed, something inevitably gets lost between the team meeting where the memo is thoroughly explained and the cubicles of IRS rank and file.  You’ve probably heard anecdotally that the IRS doesn’t follow its own rules.  Well, this is precisely where it comes from and it happens every single day.


Long Holiday Weekends for IRS This Year

Now that tax season is over for the on-time filers, many IRS employees can relax just a little.  And for at least 5 additional days this year they actually can relax at home . . . without pay.  Bloomberg apparently got its hands on an internal IRS memorandum informing IRS employees which days have been scheduled as furlough days this year.

The IRS furlough dates are:

  • May 24
  • June 14
  • July 5
  • July 22
  • August 30

These furlough dates were chosen to coincide with the federal holidays already on the calendar, so we will be looking at several four and five-day IRS closures throughout the rest of 2012.  I say five days because the IRS often shuts down early the day before a holiday, sometimes for computer maintenance, and sometimes so they aren’t disturbed during their potlucks.  I’ve always thought that “computer maintenance” was code for holiday party or potluck, but that’s just my slightly jaded opinion.

The IRS, as well as many other federal government agencies, is resorting to furloughs in reaction to budget reductions that took effect earlier this year.  Acting IRS Commissioner, Steven Miller, explained his reasoning for the agency-wide closures:

We came to a decision that balances our primary mission to serve the taxpayers and considers the effect on employees. We settled on having uniform furlough dates for everyone and closing down agency operations entirely. This way, the IRS can gain additional cost savings on utilities and other services in our work locations.

According to Miller, the closures will affect all local taxpayer assistance centers and call centers. should be up, but the availability of online services such as Transcript Delivery Service and other IRS practitioner tools is unknown.  And, if necessary, there may be an additional two furlough days coming in August and September.  Plan your vacations accordingly.

Letter Audit Process Nicer Now . . . But Not Faster

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The number of IRS “correspondence audits” has risen sharply in recent years.  A correspondence audit is a type of tax audit that is handled in the following manner:

  • The IRS sends taxpayer a letter questioning something on his/her tax return
  • taxpayer responds by providing documentation that substantiates the figures on the original return
  • the IRS then closes the case without making changes to the return, OR
  • the IRS sends another letter asking for additional supporting documentation, OR
  • the IRS proposes a tax change based on the information received

If the taxpayer disagrees with a tax change, he/she may appeal the decision.  It is called a correspondence audit because it does not involve an IRS auditor banging on your front door.

Taxpayers naturally want to know what is going on with their case; whether or not their documents have been received, whether or not the documents they submitted are sufficient, ultimately whether or not their tax problem has been resolved.  And in the past, the IRS has been slow to answer these questions.

But recently the IRS has made efforts to improve the correspondence audit process by something called the “Intelligent Contact Management System.”  See TIGTA report.  ICMS allows taxpayers to speak directly with IRS audit representatives rather than leave messages (under the old system) that were not being returned.  However, even though taxpayers may be getting through to live operators and getting answers these days, the answer is still “not yet.”  The audit process is still as slow as ever.  TIGTA confirms in their report that ICMS will not do anything to actually shorten the correspondence audit process.

On a side note, it’s slightly presumptuous for the IRS to use the word “intelligent” in the name of one of its systems, dontcha think?

IRS First Impressions

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I always like to read about first-time IRS experiences.  The taxpayer usually expresses surprise — either that the IRS is “nicer” or “meaner” than previously thought.  Of course, the IRS is neither nice nor mean.  It is a massive agency run by thousands of employees, any one of whom may be nice or mean, polite or rude, skilled or utterly incompetent.  And, for better or worse, impressions of the IRS as a whole are often formed based on interactions with one or two of its representatives.

IRS first impressions are also colored by the nature of the contact: is the taxpayer calling to request account transcripts, to report identity theft, to check the status of a refund, to try to resolve a back tax debt, or to check on the status of an Offer in Compromise?  Even thought IRS personnel are trained to be cordial regardless of the circumstances, when taxes are owed or tax returns are missing, it’s naturally harder to be “nice.”

Here are a couple first impression stories that you might like:

1. Micki Bare mostly has a hard time finding her local IRS walk-in office

2. Rev. James Snyder talks affectionately about his first IRS love letter



Should the IRS Take to the Phones?

When the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) submitted its 2011 annual report to Congress, it emphasized how “the IRS has changed from focusing on personal, local service to automated, centralized processes” and how this shift has hurt the taxpaying public. At least one author has taken this to mean that the IRS might be more effective in its collection efforts if it would pick up the phone and call taxpayers, particularly in the early stages of collections. See “Personal Finance: IRS Calls to Delinquent Taxpayers?” by Susan Tompor.

First, I’m not sure this was what the TAS had in mind.

Second, I’m not sure this is what we would want.

1. The problem with automated processes is that mistakes are common. Taxpayers are people and real people have real, sometimes unique tax problems that computers and automated letters/processes don’t always recognize. This results in delays and issues with fairness, which in turn results in distrust of the IRS. This is the concern that Nina Olson and the TAS has been harping on for years. While TAS is certainly pushing for an IRS with a more human element, I don’t think TAS is recommending they call everyone as soon as they incur a new tax debt.

2.  As Ms. Tompor correctly points out, with identity theft so rampant these days, few people would be comfortable speaking with a caller who purports to be from the IRS and who wants them to provide information such as their social security number, for verification purposes. I think this would be a waste of IRS resources. And while a phone call can be cheaper than the cost of postage, the phone calls would not replace the letters. Knowing the IRS, a confirming letter would have to be mailed after each call confirming the contact and the content of the conversation.

I am definitely in Nina Olson’s corner when it comes to making IRS interaction more helpful and individualized. But there is a time and place for everything, and I don’t think phone calls on standard collection cases are necessary or desirable.

Avoid Calling the IRS in December

December is by far the worst time to try to communicate with the IRS about your tax debt.

The Second-Stringers

I have not noticed that the telephone wait times are much different in December. Perhaps there are more IRS representatives taking vacation in December, but many practitioners and taxpayers do the same — so increased phone traffic is not normally an issue. The IRS does a fairly good job replacing the vacationers, but I have usually found the quality of their replacements to be lacking.  If you call the IRS in December (especially late December) then there is a good chance you will be dealing with a new, inexperienced IRS agent (a “second-stringer”). Of course, a tax relief attorney will know how to use that inexperience to the taxpayer’s advantage.

IRS Computer Maintenance

The IRS information technology staff takes advantage of the holidays to do routine maintenance on IRS computer systems. And they like to get a jump on things. So, if they tell you that everything is going to be shut down on Friday in observance of Christmas, then chances are they will be up and down all day on Wednesday and completely offline by early afternoon on Thursday.

If you get through to a representative who tells you their computers have been up and down, then it might be best to put off the call for another day if possible. The problem is that you will get partway through your call and everything the representative did will be lost when the computer goes down, and you’ll have to start over again.

If you have a tax issue that can’t wait until after the holidays, it is best to enlist the help of a qualified and experienced tax professional.