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Please hold: Pricey way to jump IRS phone line at tax time

February 15, 2022 GMT
FILE - A sign is displayed outside the Internal Revenue Service building May 4, 2021, in Washington. A private company, enQ, lets those who are willing to pay jump to the front of the line to get their phone calls answered at the IRS. That has attracted the attention of lawmakers who want the IRS to investigate the company's impact on the agency's phone capacity. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE - A sign is displayed outside the Internal Revenue Service building May 4, 2021, in Washington. A private company, enQ, lets those who are willing to pay jump to the front of the line to get their phone calls answered at the IRS. That has attracted the attention of lawmakers who want the IRS to investigate the company's impact on the agency's phone capacity. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE - A sign is displayed outside the Internal Revenue Service building May 4, 2021, in Washington. A private company, enQ, lets those who are willing to pay jump to the front of the line to get their phone calls answered at the IRS. That has attracted the attention of lawmakers who want the IRS to investigate the company's impact on the agency's phone capacity. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE - A sign is displayed outside the Internal Revenue Service building May 4, 2021, in Washington. A private company, enQ, lets those who are willing to pay jump to the front of the line to get their phone calls answered at the IRS. That has attracted the attention of lawmakers who want the IRS to investigate the company's impact on the agency's phone capacity. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE - A sign is displayed outside the Internal Revenue Service building May 4, 2021, in Washington. A private company, enQ, lets those who are willing to pay jump to the front of the line to get their phone calls answered at the IRS. That has attracted the attention of lawmakers who want the IRS to investigate the company's impact on the agency's phone capacity. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — If there’s one thing that pains everyone trying to reach the IRS at tax time, it’s being stuck on endless hold.

Well, not everyone.

E. Martin Davidoff’s accounting firm spends upwards of $5,000 a year to a company that can zip him and others to the front of the line to get through to an IRS customer service representative. He says paying for enQ’s line-jumping service cuts out hours every day that he would otherwise spend waiting to talk to an agent.

“It’s the epitome of American entrepreneurship,” says Davidoff, who heads the National Tax Controversy Practice for Prager Metis in New Jersey.

Consumer advocates are less enamored with enQ, seeing it as a pay-to-play arrangement that gives those who can afford it a way to get quick access to what should be a free government service equally available to all.

Members of Congress from both parties have concerns, too. The service is expected to come up on Thursday when the Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing on customer service problems at the IRS, where call volumes have reached record levels.

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“No taxpayers should have to fork over $1,000 to a private company to get their phone calls answered by the IRS. It’s maddening,” committee chairman Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote in an email to the AP. “Rebuilding this agency so it can serve hardworking taxpayers is a top priority, and the committee will again examine the issue this week.”

Last November, Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; and Mark Warner, D-Va., wrote to the IRS to urge the agency to investigate how the company’s robocalls to the IRS affect agency phone systems.

The company’s bots regularly get in the queue for various IRS service lines, and then clients who dial in to enQ can swap in to spots at the front of the waiting list.

Tax professionals who need regular access to IRS services during the busy filing season say that while enQ may be controversial, it’s necessary for them to do complicated tax work. The service, which can cost $300 a month or $1,000 a year, claims to cut phone hold times by up to 90%.

And the problem is immense. At the height of the 2021 filing season, the IRS was receiving more than 1,500 calls per second.

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National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins, who serves as an IRS ombudsman, told a House subcommittee earlier this month that taxpayers had more difficulty reaching the IRS by phone in 2021 than ever before. Because of staffing issues and an overload of work, just 11% of the 282 million phone calls received last year were answered.

Andrew Valiente, founder and CEO of enQ, declined to comment in detail, stating in an email that he was “hyper-focused on building” the business. In a video on his website, he says his approach may be “unorthodox,” but it’s also a “no-brainer” to avoid wasting time on hold.

Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, is among the many CPAs who use enQ.

“We’re conflicted that it costs money to access a free government service,’” Steber said, “but in the service of serving American taxpayers, I kind of fault the IRS for not having funding and resources — but they haven’t been funded for 20 years.”

Legislation that would have given the IRS billions of dollars to bolster its enforcement capacity and update everything from printers to photocopiers to the agency’s staffing levels and improving telephone service is stalled in Congress.

Robert Nassau, director of the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic at Syracuse University College of Law, said getting through to an IRS agent can feel like winning the lottery.

“I can’t tell for certain how much harder it has made it for people like me to get through,” he said of enQ, “but these bots are probably trying to call the same number that I’m trying to call.”

Nassau supervises roughly 10 law students per semester who help low-income people prepare and file their taxes.

“It doesn’t seem fair that when it comes to the IRS, you’re basically buying better access to the service and getting faster access,” he said. “Eventually we get through and it may take several more days. I can imagine these enQ people costing us a couple of days. It’s irksome.”

Sue Simon, a director of customer assistance at the IRS , said taxpayers have the option of using “customer call back,” where they leave a number for the IRS to call them later rather than wait on hold.

“We recognize that people don’t have a lot of time, so we want them to have the option of calling them back,” she said. “I think this is a great option and it will help taxpayers”

But Collins, in her testimony this month, warned that customer callback “may not be a cure-all for IRS telephone operations.”

“If the IRS workforce only has the capacity to answer 32 million telephone calls, as it did last year, customer callback still will not enable the IRS to handle all of the 250 million calls that went unanswered,” she said.