Calls About Tax Rebate Keep IRS Busy

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By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nothing like a tax rebate to set the phones ringing.

Since mid-February, when President Bush signed the Economic Stimulus Act, the Internal Revenue Service has been averaging more than 50,000 telephone calls per day above their normal volume at this time of year.

The number of calls about tax rebates would have been substantially greater if the IRS had not spent about $45 million sending advance notices to more than 130 million taxpayers, according to a report released yesterday by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA.

The new law provides rebates ranging from $300 to $1,200 to individuals and couples who have filed a 2007 tax return. Before Congress closed the deal on the rebates, the IRS had set up an executive steering committee to make sure the rebates got to taxpayers as soon as practicable. Checks should be in the mail in May.

As of March 8, the inspector general said, the IRS's automated message-response phones had received 1.2 million calls about the rebate. Callers who would not normally file a tax return are provided with the option to get more assistance on how to qualify for a rebate, the report said.

IRS officials expect the surge in rebate-related calls to continue through this month. The agency has taken about 1,500 employees off their regular jobs to handle calls, the report said. The IRS also expects to pay for overtime and extend the employment of "seasonal" workers because of the added workload.

Because of the calls regarding the rebates, the IRS is taking 71 seconds longer to answer taxpayer calls to its toll-free lines than it did a year ago. The average wait is slightly more than 5 minutes. About 16 percent of callers hang up on the IRS while waiting in the queue for assistance, the report said.

TIGTA did not find any significant problems with the IRS's processing of tax returns through March 8.

In a separate report, TIGTA recommended stricter controls over the IRS computer system, warning that current practices could make confidential taxpayer data more vulnerable to hacking and identity theft.

The IRS said it was not aware that any taxpayer information had been compromised because of a security breach. "We continue to work to improve our security capabilities of our technology assets, and we have extensive intrusion-monitoring capabilities to watch for potential breaches," the agency said in a statement.

Retirees Miss Forms

In a bid to save money, the IRS recently scaled back mailings of the forms needed to make quarterly estimated tax payments. That sparked some complaints from federal retirees who collect pensions from more than one retirement system, have income not subject to withholding, and expected the forms to show up in their mail.

"We are aware that we inadvertently eliminated some who should not have been omitted," the IRS said in a statement.

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