By Debbie Spingarn, Contributing Writer
REGION – When Teresa Fern, 52, of Norfolk had her social security number stolen, the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) was aware but unable to help. Though she says she was easily able to reach them, no help was offered to remedy her tax situation. While identity theft is an extreme but increasingly common situation, the IRS has reputedly had poor customer service for a long time, which worsened during the pandemic years, when staffing issues impacted the government agency, as well as critical issues with funding. For older people who may not be tech- or tax-savvy and want to talk to someone knowledgeable, this can lead to increased frustration when a need to contact the IRS arises.
A variety of improvements
According to IRS media relations spokesman Anthony Burke, the IRS recently issued a press release in April based on written testimony from Daniel Werfel, the Commissioner of the IRS given before the Senate Finance Committee. The 10-page release outlines many major improvements the IRS is currently implementing. These include improving phone service for customers by hiring more than 5,000 additional customer service reps for toll-free lines and hiring hundreds of new employees for in-person assistance. There will also be better access to electronically filed and scanned returns, easier responses to IRS notices for consumers, and faster refunds on amended returns via direct deposit rather than waiting for delivery of a paper refund check.
The release added that, “The IRA legislation (Inflation Reduction Act of 2022) provides the IRS with a unique opportunity to transform our agency and the taxpayer experience over the next decade.”
IRS phone customer service is difficult, though Maria Levin, a Norwood CPA, said she is able to reach someone at the agency if she calls at 7 a.m. According to the press release, “Taxpayer research shows that phone service is a preferred channel of contacting the federal agency and inadequate phone service causes taxpayers to increase usage of other service channels, such as paper correspondence, so keeping phone level of service high will reduce incoming paper inventory.”
Free help for tax prep
Older taxpayers needing tax preparation services can get free help at many senior centers or councils on aging around the state. In Norwood, senior center director Kerri McCarthy said her agency uses the AARP Tax Assistance program. Taxpayers who need to contact the IRS directly cannot do so via a tax prep service but need to obtain an appointment for in-person help at one of four centers in Massachusetts: Boston (at the JFK Federal Building), Brockton (120 Liberty Street), Woburn (400 Trade Center Drive) and Worcester (120 Front Street).
Electronic filing requires identity verification
The days of filing paper tax returns are fast disappearing, even for individuals not filing with an accountant or tax prep service. The IRS, in contrast to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is a strict identity-verifying entity. Often, though, when individuals change addresses frequently and fail to inform the IRS of address changes, a PIN number mailed to the person’s current address is needed to verify identity and continue with electronic filing. Without identity verification, electronic filing is not possible and may persist through the lifetime of the taxpayer.
Don’t delay claiming refunds
Tax-filing issues can be complicated and time-consuming. With such strict identify verification, individuals like Teresa Fern may be unable to get help from the IRS with identity theft. Police are unable to be involved. This often requires legal help that can take years to come to a conclusion. 2019 was a difficult year as those returns came due during the pandemic.
Another press release says that as of this past July, there was $1.5 billion in refunds owed to taxpayers. It adds that, “Under the law, taxpayers have three years to file and claim tax refunds. If they don’t claim within three years, the money becomes the property of the U.S. Treasury.”
Let’s hope the improved customer service planned by the IRS will help taxpayers, as the agency stated, “be able to seamlessly interact with the agency in ways that work best for them on the phone, in-person and online.”