(Bloomberg) With only a week to go until T-Day, it’s countdown time—and about one-third of U.S. income tax returns had yet to be filed as of April 1. Following last year’s abysmal mix of poor customer service, massive identity theft, and refund fraud, a healthy dose of tax filing dread seems to have set in.
Such fears may be overblown this season. In response to the terrible trifecta of 2015, Congress relented on its six-year streak of IRS budget cuts. In fact, in December the agency got an additional $290 million to improve customer service, expand efforts to combat identity theft, and beef up cybersecurity. The IRS allocated about $177 million for taxpayer services, $108 million for operations support, and $4.9 million for enforcement.
Still, the number of returns received is down 1.4 percent from last year. So here’s a look at how that new money is being used—and how this tax season is shaping up before the April 18 deadline. It’s not quite as ugly as you might expect.
More Calls Are Being Answered …
The IRS added about 1,000 temporary employees to help improve customer phone service this filing season. The agency said that as of late March it had answered more than 8 million calls from taxpayers.
One of the primary measures of customer experience the IRS uses is “level of service,” or what percentage of callers actually get through to a live representative. That number jumped significantly from 2015. (Granted, having a phone call answered by a human doesn’t mean you didn’t have a long wait time—or that you got a helpful answer.)
… After Spending a Lot Less Time on Hold
The phone wait time for taxpayers as of Feb. 13 was nine minutes, or 70 percent less than the 28-minute stretch taxpayers endured this time a year ago, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. For the IRS’s full fiscal year, its projection for average wait time on the helplines that most taxpayers call is about 26 minutes. (Phone waits will lengthen when those 1,000 temporary employees are gone.)
If that still sounds bad, try being a tax practitioner. Their helpline had an average wait of 47.6 minutes last year, according to a “Tax Day 2016 by the Numbers” report from Wallet Hub. And that was actually a 23 percent improvement from the average wait time in 2014.
Use of the IRS Website Rises
More people are going to IRS.gov, with visits reaching 276.3 million as of April 1, compared with 258.5 million this time last year. That’s a rise of almost 7 percent. The IRS views increased visits to its website as a good thing, in part because it’s a much cheaper way to assist customers. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said that helping a taxpayer online costs $1, compared with as much as $60 for in-person assistance.
As of March 29 the IRS’s “Where’s My Refund?” tool was accessed more than 231 million times, up almost 35 percent from the same time a year ago. Last year’s 234 million visits to the tool was also a record, increasing 24 percent from 2014.
The Best News: The Average Refund Keeps Inching Up
Identity theft—and subsequent refund fraud—continues to flourish, but the IRS has put in more filters to tag potentially fraudulent returns. The number has risen from 11 filters in 2012 to 183 filters now in use. There are no hard figures yet on the level of refund fraud attempts this year.
As of April 1 more than 76 million refunds had been issued, totaling $215.3 billion. And if you’re still procrastinating, here’s a little motivation: The average refund check so far this year is $2,832, up 0.6 percent from the $2,815 average a year ago. That’s $17 you could probably use.
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