If you owe federal taxes and can’t pay them, the first thing you should do is call the IRS.

Don’t call the number you see on your television screen or the one you hear in a radio ad. Make the IRS your first stop so that you don’t fall prey to a scam. Because, contrary to the claims on the commercials promising quick relief, private companies are not likely to get your tax debt reduced to pennies on the dollar.

And to be clear, I’m not talking about a taxpayer who’s fighting the IRS over the legitimacy of a deduction. If you’ve got a complicated tax situation, you may need to hire a certified public accountant or an attorney who specializes in such tax cases.

But if your issue is an unpaid tax debt that you’ve been ignoring, just contact the IRS.

By March, the IRS plans to add about 850 employees spread out in 19 locations to staff key collection telephone lines. An additional 1,000 seasonal workers will also be hired. The workers are being specially trained to handle calls from people who have received balance-due notices for unpaid taxes, according to Eric Hylton, head of the IRS’s Small Business/Self-Employed Division.

During a conference call with reporters, Hylton said 200 of the jobs are being funded from revenue generated by money collected through private agencies hired to collect certain outstanding, inactive tax debt.

“The new hires are part of a larger effort by the IRS to focus on helping taxpayers who are having trouble paying their tax bills,” Hylton said. “If people can’t pay and start receiving notices from the IRS, it is critical that they reach out as soon as possible in this process. Interest and penalties can quickly accrue. Things get worse the longer people wait.”

The IRS employees answering the collection lines will be able to help folks figure out their payment options. The vast majority of people calling will find they qualify for a streamlined installment agreement, said Darren Guillot, deputy commissioner for collection and operations support in the Small Business/Self-Employed Division.

Guillot recounted a recent call at a center in Fresno in which an IRS employee assisted an elderly taxpayer. In less than 25 minutes, the IRS worker was able to determine the woman was a hardship case.

“As much as this taxpayer wanted to set up a payment arrangement, she provided us with sufficient information so that we could counsel her toward paying whatever she felt she could afford,” Guillot said.

If you’ve gotten a balance-due notice in the mail from the IRS, you will find a toll-free number you need to call within the letter.

If you’re still too scared to call the IRS, go online to set up a payment agreement. Search for “Payment Plan” at irs.gov, and you’ll be directed to the online application to pay off your balance over time. A long-term payment plan is available to those who owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest. You can set up a monthly payment agreement for up to 72 months.

You can also apply for what’s called an “Offer in Compromise” or OIC. This program is intended to help people who are so financially strapped that it’s unlikely the agency could collect all that the government is owed.

An OIC allows you to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount owed. Search for “OIC” and then use the pre-qualifier tool to check your eligibility.

“It’s quicker, it’s more efficient and it’s less intrusive for Americans to go online to irs.gov and resolve their tax liability all by themselves without any interaction with the IRS and a person having to wait on the phone if they owe $50,000 or less,” Guillot said.

Once, during a budget session, a woman I was working with admitted she owed the IRS about $25,000.

She’d been avoiding responding to the letters the IRS had been sending.

“You’ve got to take care of this,” I urged.

“I’m scared,” she said, shaking. “I don’t have that kind of money.”

After some coaxing, she called the number listed in one of the letters. In less than 15 minutes, she was on a payment plan she could afford. I even persuaded her to move in with her sister so she could reduce her expenses and get rid of the tax debt even faster than the plan she had set up with the IRS.

Don’t let your fear get in the way of settling your tax debt. Help that won’t get you scammed or cost you thousands of dollars is just a call or click away.

Have a question about retirement or personal finance? Join Michelle for an online Q&A every Thursday at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.