Advocate: IRS needs to enforce less, help taxpayers more

The Internal Revenue Service “needs a culture change so that it is not viewed as an enforcement agency but the tax agency that helps taxpayers comply” with income tax laws, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson said Tuesday in San Antonio.

Olson was in San Antonio for the last of a dozen forums she’s held this year across the country as she prepares recommendations she’ll make in December to Congress to improve IRS operations.

More than 60 people overflowed a classroom at the Maestro Entrepreneur Center to hear Olson and a panel of tax professionals. They spoke about about issues ranging from low IRS staffing and the possibility of wider use of online IRS accounts and related security barriers to the ongoing scams in which taxpayers are falsely threatened with IRS lawsuits.

Attending the forum with Olson was U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-San Antonio, a member of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax legislation.

Olson explained she decided to conduct the forums because the IRS recently had begun a “Future State” planning process to guide the agency’s future. Olson said she was concerned that the plan was being created within the IRS without public input. “I thought, ‘I’ll reach out,’” Olson said.

A man in the audience who identified himself only as “John Q. Public” asked Olson what the IRS is doing to stop telephone calls in which scammers try to steal identities and money with telephone calls falsely threatening taxpayers with IRS lawsuits, frightening them into making payments.

The agency can only put out public service announcements, Olson said, pointing out the IRS does not contact taxpayers by telephone or email — only by U.S. mail.

Olson said the scams have reached the scale of organized crime.

“It’s very difficult to track this,” Olson said. “It’s like whack-a-mole. You smack one down and another pops up. It’s a no-risk scheme.”

She was joined by panelists in pointing out that the scams originate overseas in places such as the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe and Russia.

“The IRS cannot stop it,” said James Smith, a Dallas tax accountant. “You can’t crack down on Eastern Europe or the Russian mafia. An informed public is the right answer.”

Olson agreed. “It’s such a difficult issue,” she said. “Only an informed public can stop it.”

All of the panelists complained about long telephone hold times, sometimes more than two hours, when taxpayers and tax preparers call the agency for help with complicated income tax codes.

“The IRS must use technology in a way that improves communications,” said San Antonio tax account Jim Oliver. IRS instructions on filling out its forms often are difficult to understand. “It’s difficult for taxpayers to know what to do, and they ask, ‘Is there someone who can help?’ but there is no one else,” Oliver said.

Olson replied that plans to widen use of IRS online resourcesdo not currently include ways to clarify communications.

LaMarr Queen, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph tax program coordinator, said IRS plans to use online accounts will not appeal to many taxpayers and will present opportunities for identity theft. “Boy, does that scare me. Many people don’t want to use the internet. They don’t like computers … Man, you have to have good security,” he said.

Oliver also pointed out that the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in San Antonio two years ago changed to an appointment-only system instead of operating as a walk-in center. That presents problems for taxpayers facing payment deadlines who find out that they cannot walk in with a certified check and make a payment unless they have an appointment. And when appointments are not available for two to four weeks, that means taxpayers will miss deadlines, Oliver said.