Over 33 million callers could not reach the Internal Revenue Service’s toll-free assistance number last year to ask about economic stimulus payments, and the IRS could get swamped again this year with calls.

The IRS kept callers on hold for more than double the time it did in 2007, according to a new report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general. The IRS’s performance is not expected to improve much this season as last year’s economic stimulus payments are still going to prompt questions from callers.

“Prior TIGTA reports concluded that the IRS successfully planned the payments and accurately calculated how much taxpayers received,” said Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George in a statement. “However, taxpayers did experience difficulties in obtaining information from the IRS via telephone during the filing season because of the large number of inquiries about the rebates.”

As a result of taxpayer interest in the rebates, the number of calls after the 2008 filing season increased, TIGTA’s new report found. Between April 19 and Aug. 30, 2008, the IRS received approximately 125 million call attempts from taxpayers, TIGTA found.

“The increased volume of taxpayer calls resulted in increased wait times and busy signals, with the average caller waiting nearly 10 minutes,” George said. “By contrast, the average wait time in 2007 was 4.5 minutes. In addition, the number of call attempts in which taxpayers received a busy signal or an automated message asking them to call back later increased by 20.5 million calls from 2007.”

TIGTA believes the economic stimulus payments will also affect the 2009 filing season because the payments are a credit for tax year 2008, even though the payments were estimated using information reported on tax year 2007 returns.  Individuals who qualify for a larger payment as a result of changes between their tax year 2007 and tax year 2008 returns will receive the additional amount.

The IRS anticipates it will receive about 3.3 million calls regarding the stimulus rebate between January and June of 2009, which includes the filing season. TIGTA estimates that the additional call volume could be as high as 8.6 million if calling patterns remain the same. 

The IRS disagreed with TIGTA’s estimates and stated that it is making sufficient resources available to handle the anticipated volume of calls. However, TIGTA recommended that the IRS amend its telephone scripts to alert taxpayers who are waiting to speak with an assistor to expect the longer wait times. If the call volumes are higher than anticipated, the IRS should also provide callers with the estimated wait time to speak with an assistor, said TIGTA.

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