Undercover investigators from the Treasury Department posing as taxpayers who needed customer service from the Internal Revenue Service were kept waiting for up to four hours in IRS offices and in some cases told to come back another day.

A new report on the IRS’s customer service from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration acknowledged that TIGTA’s undercover investigators received accurate and helpful assistance about tax law questions when they were able to talk with IRS assistors. The TIGTA auditors were also able to accurately prepare tax returns using various IRS sources such as the Free File program. In addition, the assistors at the IRS’s Taxpayer Assistance Centers were able to accurately prepare tax returns for the undercover TIGTA auditors, based on a sample of the recordings made of them.

However, TIGTA’s auditors found that taxpayers experienced long wait times at the Taxpayer Assistance Centers and on the telephones. At the TACs, the undercover investigators waited an average of one hour to receive assistance and in some cases were turned away and told to return another day to obtain services. Wait times ranged from no time to four hours.

In addition, the TACs did not always allow qualified taxpayers to schedule appointments and they did not consistently apply new taxpayer screening guidelines and procedures.

“An important part of the IRS’s mission is to help taxpayers understand and meet their tax obligations,” said TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George in a statement. “We urge the IRS to make improvements as we have outlined in order to improve taxpayer service.”

A survey last year by the IRS Oversight Board of taxpayers found that 85 percent of the respondents were not willing to wait more than 30 minutes to speak to an assistor. The IRS reported that 76 percent of the taxpayers who waited to speak to its assistors at the 225 Taxpayer Assistance Centers that keep track of wait time waited fewer than 30 minutes in January and February of this year. However, the IRS does not include the time a taxpayer waits before he or she is screened and given a number or ticket to speak with an assistor.

On five occasions, the undercover TIGTA auditors who visited three different TACs were turned away and asked to come back another day. Generally, this happened when the auditors visited the centers in the afternoons and there were too many taxpayers already waiting for help.

For example, on one occasion, two undercover TIGTA auditors arrived at 1:33 p.m. and 1:40 p.m., respectively. The screener at the IRS office advised the taxpayers who were waiting with account issues or tax law questions that they would need to return the next day because they had stopped giving out numbers. Early the following morning at 8:43 a.m., one of the auditors returned to the same center and waited about an hour before the screener said again that they had stopped accepting new arrivals. Taxpayers would have to return another day since the center was at capacity and all assistors were “busy in the back.” The center had stopped giving out numbers at approximately 9:40 a.m.

TIGTA recommended that the IRS reinforce its existing controls to ensure that TAC managers appropriately schedule appointments requested by taxpayers who have an ongoing, complex tax account problem or a special need, such as a disability. The report also recommended that the IRS should add information on its Web site and telephone recordings to tell taxpayers ahead of time that they might be asked to provide identification and Social Security numbers in order to receive help.

In response to the report, IRS officials agreed with both of the recommendations. IRS management plans to issue additional instructions to TAC managers relating about scheduling appointments. The IRS also intends to update IRS.gov and the telephone recordings for its Taxpayer Assistance Centers to include a statement advising taxpayers that they may be asked to provide valid photo identification and a Taxpayer Identification Number, such as a Social Security number, to receive services.

“The IRS continues to address wait times through the available resources in TAC operations,” wrote IRS Wage and Investment Division commissioner Richard Byrd Jr. “During fiscal year 2011, Field Assistance continued to expand hours of service to taxpayers, and delivered special weekend tax assistance events assisting over 31,000 taxpayers.”

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