The Internal Revenue Service needs to do better at enabling its frontline employees to identify potentially dangerous tax practitioners, according to a new government report that found at least 84 taxpayer representatives who represented a threat to IRS employees and at least two instances of physical assault.

The report, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, noted that the IRS has approximately 25,000 employees who have direct contact with taxpayers and their representatives. It acknowledged that employee safety is a top priority for the IRS. The IRS has programs in place to help protect employees when interacting with individuals who are known to be violent, abusive, or pose some other type of danger.

Examples include IRS programs that designate Potentially Dangerous Taxpayers, or PDT, and another indicator for so-called “Caution Upon Contact,” or CAU, individuals.

As of last August, the IRS had identified 84 taxpayer representatives who fit into one of these categories and two to four physical assaults on IRS employees.

TIGTA initiated its audit in response to a referral from its Office of Investigations that identified paid tax return preparers who might pose a threat to IRS employees conducting official business. The report noted that frontline IRS employees can be exposed to many difficult, threatening and dangerous situations. The overall objective of TIGTA’s review was to determine the adequacy of processes and procedures for employees who have direct contact with taxpayer representatives and to identify those representatives who are designated as potentially dangerous or who need to be approached with caution.

The report found that the IRS has not developed sufficient procedures to enable frontline employees to readily identify whether a taxpayer representative has been designated as PDT or CAU.

While a frontline employee can research an individual’s tax account for the PDT or CAU designation using the individual’s Social Security Number, the employee typically does not have a taxpayer representative’s SSN. Instead, employees generally must search for the representative’s tax account using the representative’s name, TIGTA noted. Without the SSN, an employee is unable to definitively identify and examine the representative’s tax account for a PDT or CAU indicator.

The IRS does maintain systems that can be used to better identify if a taxpayer representative has either a PDT or CAU designation, the report pointed out. However, these systems either do not provide the designation information or the IRS is unwilling to grant employees access based on concerns for privacy.

As of Aug. 29, 2013, the IRS had designated 84 taxpayer representatives with a PDT or CAU indicator. “Although this number is a small percentage of the 2.3 million representatives in the Centralized Authorization File, the safety of frontline employees, others working in the same facilities, and taxpayers is at risk when these employees unknowingly meet with potentially dangerous taxpayer representatives,” said the report. “IRS employees reported four incidents of physical assault by taxpayer representatives in calendar years 2010 through 2012. The IRS agreed that even one assault is one too many.”

TIGTA recommended that the IRS’s Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement develop a process to enable frontline employees to readily access information that identifies whether a taxpayer representative has been designated as a PDT or CAU. The IRS should also ensure that its internal guidance is updated with procedures to research taxpayer representative designations, and that outreach and training is performed to ensure that frontline employees are knowledgeable of the revised process, the report suggested.

In response to the report, IRS officials said they believe their current procedures are appropriate to ensure the safety of employees. However, TIGTA said it remains concerned that frontline employees do not have a process to readily identify whether a taxpayer representative has been designated as a PDT or CAU.

“The IRS takes our obligation to provide employees with a safe work environment seriously,” wrote IRS Small Business/Self-Employed Division commissioner Karen Schiller in response to the report. “We, therefore, appreciate your recognition that employee safety is a top priority for the IRS.”
She noted that the Potentially Dangerous Taxpayer and Caution upon Contact programs are two examples of IRS programs that focus on employee protection, but the IRS also has several other programs that also focus on employee protection. 

“We strongly believe that these employee protection programs are effective in minimizing our employees’ exposure to threatening or dangerous situations without compromising our ability to provide taxpayers and their representatives top quality service,” said Schiller. “While even one physical assault on an IRS employee is unacceptable, the population of taxpayer representatives generally does not pose an imminent threat or danger to our employees. IRS employees have thousands of face-to-face contacts with taxpayer representatives each year, and still there were only two verified physical assaults by taxpayer representatives during calendar years 2010 through 2012.”

Schiller acknowledged that TIGTA’s findings show that current procedures for identifying whether a taxpayer’s representative has a PDT or CAU designation are cumbersome. “However, the report does not include any data or information supporting the report’s conclusion that less cumbersome procedures will reduce the risk of physical assault to our frontline employees by a taxpayer representative,” she wrote. “The safety of our employees is of utmost importance and we will continue to review our current processes in this area to determine whether any changes are necessary that would meaningfully reduce the threat or danger to our employees. We will also balance any new changes with the potential impact on tax administration.” 

During any review of the matter, Schiller pointed out that it would be necessary to consider the practitioner community’s views on any new process and any potential adverse effects on tax administration. “While, thankfully, the data and information available shows the practitioner community does not pose an imminent threat or danger to our employees, IRS will continue its diligence in ensuring a safe working environment for all of our employees,” she said.