The Internal Revenue Service announced that through March 13, more than 2.6 million taxpayers have electronically filed their returns using the agency’s Free File program. TThough that’s about 4 percent drop from the number of returns filed during the same time last year.

Accessed through IRS.gov, Free File is available to 70 percent of U.S. taxpayers -- those with an adjusted gross income of $52,000 or less. The program is a partnership between the IRS and the Free File Alliance, a group of 20 private companies that provide their tax prep software free-of-charge if accessed through the IRS Web site.

Free File is part of the IRS e-file program, and through early March, the number of overall e-filed returns had increased by about 5 percent. Returns prepared on home computers, which also includes free-filed returns, were up by 8 percent.

While Free File started out a bit more slowly this year, the IRS said that the returns filed in recent weeks are now topping comparable weeks from last year, and the IRS expects the program to equal or surpass last year’s numbers by the end of the filing season.

The IRS made a number of changes and improvements to the program this year, first of all, eliminating the sales pitches for ancillary return products, such as refund anticipation loans. The agency also created an enhanced, Guide Me to a Company" wizard, that is aimed at making it easier for a taxpayer to determine what Free File software is best suited to their needs.

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