The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The IRS hung up on taxpayers 8.8 million times this year. And there’s more bad news about customer service.

DALLAS, TEXAS – March 24: Taxpayers standing in line to see a tax specialist at the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in downtown Dallas in late March. (Photo by Lisa Rein/The Washington Post)
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The Internal Revenue Service hung up on customers calling for help 8.8 million times this year, showing just how low service sank during tax filing season.

The new low in “courtesy disconnects,” a euphemism for an overloaded system hanging up on a caller when there’s no one to answer the phone, was just one grim statistic in a new report to Congress from National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson.

The hang-ups exploded from last year, when the IRS disconnected  544,000 callers.

[A standard dejection in the IRS help line]

Fewer than 10 percent of callers whose returns were flagged as suspicious for possible identity theft could get through to an IRS help line during the season’s busiest stretch, the report released Wednesday found. A little more than a third of callers looking for any other kind of help got to speak to someone, the lowest rate in a decade. And they waited on hold an average of 23 minutes first.

“…Millions of taxpayers were unable to reach the IRS by phone; millions did not receive a timely response (if any) to their correspondence; and many more may have had to pay a tax preparer or professional for answers to tax law questions or for assistance they could previously have obtained from the IRS for free,” wrote Olson, who leads an independent office within the IRS.

[IRS: We are still chasing tax cheats]

The lousy customer service came as the IRS faced new demands on its budget and staff. About 50 million callers reached out for help this filing season, overloading help lines with questions about a wave of identity theft, new requirements under the Affordable Care Act and a crackdown on tax cheats who hide their money in overseas accounts.

[How the breach of IRS tax returns is part of a much bigger problem for taxpayers]

The IRS moved about $133 million from its taxpayer services division to a systems programming account that helped it implement the new laws.

Olson described the 2015 filing season as a “Tale of Two Cities”: If you didn’t need to interact with the IRS, the system served you fine. If you needed to deal with a human, it did not. The resulting “loss of trust” could eventually lead some Americans to just stop paying their taxes, the report warns.

Congress has cut the IRS budget by $1.2 billion or about 17 percent since 2010, and House Republicans are proposing more cuts next year. But even last year’s filing season went a lot better. The agency answered 71 percent of its calls, and hold times averaged about 14 minutes.

IRS spokeswoman Julianne Fisher Breitbeil said in a statement, “The IRS must carefully balance limited resources to meet its dual mission of providing taxpayer service and enforcing the tax laws … The continuing cuts to our budget have severely hampered our ability to provide taxpayers with the services they need and deserve.”

When callers did get a real person, they couldn’t ask questions that required expertise. These were considered “out of scope” starting this year. Customer service agents could only answer basic tax questions.

Taxpayers looking for answers to their questions on paper were stuck too. Libraries, post offices and local assistance centers didn’t get their year’s forms and publications until Feb. 28, almost halfway through the filing season. And when the forms ran out, there were no more to order.