Wednesday, November 4, 2009

TIGTA: Most taxpayers prefer contacts with the IRS be by telephone

Yes, you read that right. That's a direct quote from a recently released Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) report.

Most taxpayers prefer contacts with the IRS be by telephone.

My jaw dropped when I read this statement, which TIGTA states is based on research, though they don't footnote the source of this research. To be clear, TIGTA is making this statement because it thinks the IRS should be doing more to encourage taxpayers to phone the IRS automated self-service phone system to make routine requests for tax information. TIGTA calls it the "Integrated Customer Communication Environment" (ICCE). I call it the 800 robo-phone.

But maybe I'm atypical. Maybe most taxpayers really do prefer the phone when dealing with the IRS.

So I thought I would collect a little bit of (highly unscientific but still interesting) data via a poll here:

TIGTA makes this claim in the context of a report about how best to serve taxpayers who are requesting transcripts of their tax information. Some people need such documents for verification of mortgage or financial aid applications or divorce settlement negotiations. Other taxpayers have lost their copies of their documents due to natural disasters or personal disorganization. Still other taxpayers are trying to figure out exactly how the IRS has credited their quarterly estimated tax payments.

Such taxpayers currently have two options.

Option #1) You can fill out a Form 4506-T, a very simple document, and fax or mail it to the IRS. Name, address, SSN, a couple of checkmarks, list the tax years for which you are seeking information, sign and date, stick it in the fax machine or in an envelope and send it off. Total time involved: 5 minutes maximum.

Option #2) You can call the IRS main toll-free number to access the IRS phone system, which TIGTA calls the "Integrated Customer Communication Environment" (ICCE). If you call ICCE, you get to waste a good bit of time listening to a series of menu prompts relating to irrelevant options before hearing the options with the right number to press for tax transcripts. If you are lucky, and press all the right buttons, and the stars align properly, you might--in theory--be able to complete the transaction without needing to talk to a human being. If you are not so lucky, and the stars don't line up, you will press all the buttons and wind up being told that you need to stay on the line and wait on hold for some indefinite period of time so that a human being can follow up with more questions. This could take a LOT longer than 5 minutes.

One of my relatives recently needed a transcript of her tax payments, because of concerns that the IRS might have credited a quarterly estimated tax payment for 2009 to her 2008 liability by mistake. Since TIGTA was pushing the ICCE robo-phone option so enthusiastically in its report, I encouraged her to try out the robo-phone option.

To make sure she did everything correctly, I had her put the phone on its speakerphone setting so I could verify that she was answering all the prompts properly. The menu prompts had changed and lengthened considerably from the dialog that TIGTA had published in the report it released just a few days ago, so it took about five minutes for her to listen it to it all and punch in all the appropriate required responses. After she'd done all that, the robo-voice finally informed her that she would have to stay on the line to wait to speak with a live human. The predicted wait was "10 to 15 minutes." According to TIGTA, this should not have happened. If she had entered all the information correctly, as we were quite sure she had done, the TIGTA report said that she wouldn't need to wait on hold for a human. But just in case, I had her hang up and try one going through the whole robo-menu option system more time. So she hung up and tried again, being very, very careful--same result. Her situation was very straightforward. No change of address. Not a joint return. Just requesting her 2008 transcript.

Out of curiosity, I decided to try requesting a transcript of my own tax history for myself. I listened to all the same robo-prompts, pressed the required keys, and so on. Eventually the system determined that I was requesting information for a joint return with my husband, and that was enough for the robo-voice to insist that I had to talk to a live human being. By the time I called, the live human beings were no longer on duty (after 10 p.m. Eastern time), so I was told to call again tomorrow to talk to a human.

According to TIGTA, phone requests save the IRS a lot of money, because most of them can be handled by the automated ICCE robo-voice system. But at least in the two cases in my family, the robo-voice system ultimately kicked us over to live human beings, who would cost the IRS a lot more money than the robo-phone menu tree system.

And my relative would have wasted a lot of time waiting on hold for the live person to come on line. It was a lot easier to hang up and just fax in the form.

UPDATE 11/27/09: Although the TIGTA report claimed that taxpayers who requested their returns via sending in a paper form might face delays of six to eight weeks or more in receiving their transcripts, my relative received her transcript today, just 23 days after she mailed the form in. In her case, that was plenty of time for her purposes. That's just one datapoint, of course, and others are welcome to email me about their experiences. TIGTA states that the IRS is required to respond with 60 days, but that the IRS missed that deadline in 39% of the cases it studied. The longest delay TIGTA spotted in their audit was 222 days.

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