Want tax help? IRS offers busy signal to 3 in 10

WASHINGTON – Need help with your taxes? Good luck reaching someone on the phone at the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS estimates that only 70 percent of the people who call its toll-free help line this tax season will get through to a human being — if the agency meets its service goal.

Callers lucky enough to get through will have to wait on hold an average of nearly 12 minutes, a level of service deemed unacceptable in a report issued Wednesday by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson.

«In other words, the IRS is planning to be unable to answer about three of every 10 calls it receives,» said Olson, an independent watchdog within the IRS.

Such poor service, she said, «will cause problems for taxpayers and the IRS alike, as some taxpayers give up and don’t bother to file or they make avoidable errors that the IRS then must devote resources toward resolving.»

The IRS said it has been inundated with an unprecedented number of calls the past two years from taxpayers with questions about temporary tax breaks passed by Congress to help revive the economy — a phenomenon that is expected to continue this year.

To help, the agency has upgraded its Web site, posting answers to frequent questions, including the status of tax refunds.

«Resources available to deliver telephone services are finite and staffing allocations must be made in light of competing demands necessary to meet other customer needs and preferences,» the IRS said in a written response to the report. «The IRS believes a balanced delivery of services through telephone, Internet, face-to-face, and correspondence ensures that our customers, regardless of the channel they choose, receive the best service possible.»

In her annual report to Congress, delivered Wednesday, Olson said that poor phone service by the IRS was the most serious problem encountered by taxpayers.

Some callers could get busy signals while others will abandon calls after being informed of the wait time. Others may be prompted to go to the IRS Web site, or have their questions answered by the automated system.

Taxpayer services were a big issue in 1998 when Congress overhauled the agency, guaranteeing new rights for taxpayers. Phone services steadily improved for a few years. In 2004, the percentage of callers reaching a person peaked at 87 percent.

The percentage of callers getting accurate legal information has continued to improve. In 2001, just 80 percent of the people who called the toll-free help line received accurate information, according to the agency’s own estimates. In 2009, 93 percent of callers got accurate information, according to the IRS.

«The IRS is committed to providing the best possible service to every taxpayer,» said spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge. «Over the last two filing seasons the IRS assisted an unprecedented number of taxpayers through toll-free telephone service, and overall taxpayer satisfaction remains extremely high.»

In 2008, the IRS received 151 million calls on its toll-free line — up from 67 million the year before. Many of the calls were concerning tax rebate checks issued by the IRS as part of an economic stimulus package passed by Congress. That year, only 53 percent of callers to the toll-free line reached a person.

In 2009, the agency received 94 million calls — some were about the previous year’s rebate checks while others were about a new round of tax breaks approved last February to help revive the nation’s ailing economy. In 2009, 70 percent of callers reached a person.

The agency expects another busy tax season this year as taxpayers continue to have questions about temporary tax breaks, including a generous one for homebuyers.

The toll-free help line for individuals is 800-829-1040.