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Excerpts from the mid-year report from the National Taxpayer Advocate

Excerpts from the mid-year report to Congress from the Taxpayer Advocate Service

(Ever wonder why you cannot get through to the IRS?)

Below are excerpts from National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson’s mid-year report to Congress. As you read this you will understand why tax preparers and taxpayers have such a difficult time dealing with the Internal Revenue Service.

During the filing season, the IRS processed 126.1 million individual tax returns (compared with 125.6 million last year) and issued 91.8 million refunds (compared with 94.8 million last year). The average refund amount was $2,711 (compared with $2,686 last year).

· The IRS answered only 37 percent of taxpayer calls routed to customer service representatives overall, and the hold time for taxpayers who got through averaged 23 minutes. This level of service represents a sharp drop-off from the 2014 filing season, when the IRS answered 71 percent of its calls and hold times averaged about 14 minutes.

· The IRS answered only 39 percent of calls from taxpayers seeking assistance from TAS on the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) Toll-Free hotline, and hold times averaged 19 minutes. TAS serves as the IRS’s “safety net” for taxpayers who are experiencing a financial or systemic hardship as a result of IRS action or inaction.

· The IRS answered only 17 percent of calls from taxpayers who called after being notified that their tax returns had been blocked by the Taxpayer Protection Program (TPP) on suspicion of identity theft, and the hold times averaged about 28 minutes. In three consecutive weeks during the filing season, the IRS answered fewer than 10 percent of these calls.

· The IRS answered only 45 percent of calls from practitioners who called the IRS on the Practitioner Priority Service line, and hold times averaged 45 minutes.

· The number of “courtesy disconnects” received by taxpayers calling the IRS skyrocketed from about 544,000 in 2014 to about 8.8 million this filing season, an increase of more than 1,500 percent. The term “courtesy disconnect” is used when the IRS essentially hangs up on a taxpayer because its switchboard is overloaded and cannot handle additional calls.

· The decline in telephone performance can be attributed largely to three factors: The number of taxpayer calls routed to telephone assistors increased by 41 percent, the number of calls answered by telephone assistors decreased by 26 percent, and the average call duration increased by 10 percent.

· The IRS sharply restricted the availability of paper copies of forms and publications, imposing burden on taxpayers without Internet access or online literacy. The IRS’s own Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) and its Tax Form Outlet Partners such as libraries and post offices did not receive forms until February 28, almost halfway through the filing season. Once a TAC ran out of forms or publications, it could not order more.

Olson wrote that the decline in taxpayer service imposes increased compliance burdens on taxpayers and may lead to erosion in taxpayer trust. “For a tax system that relies on voluntary self-assessment by its taxpayers, none of this bodes well,” she wrote. “In fact, there is a real risk that the inability of taxpayers to obtain assistance from the government, and their consequent frustration, will lead to less voluntary compliance and more enforced compliance.”

During the filing season alone, the IRS received about 1.6 million taxpayer calls on its Identity Protection Specialized Unit (IPSU) telephone line. The level of service was about 54 percent and the average hold time was about 25 minutes. It also received about 2.9 million taxpayer calls on its TPP telephone line. As noted above, the level of service was 17 percent for the TPP line, and the average hold time was about 28 minutes.

The report expresses concern that the IRS is not doing enough to assist identity theft victims and reiterates the National Taxpayer Advocate’s longstanding recommendation that the IRS assign a single employee to coordinate complex identity theft cases. “Without a single employee with whom to work, identity theft victims often have to call the IRS multiple times and talk with multiple employees about different aspects of their case,” the report says. “Equally important, no one employee is held accountable for the resolution of the case. Thus, affected taxpayers often feel like they are victimized a second time by the IRS’s processes.”

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