So far, IRS’ taxpayer assistance efforts get poor reviews

By Michelle Singletary

The tax code is complicated enough, but some people who tried to find information about a recent Internal Revenue Service initiative to help those in economic distress learned anew why Americans get so frustrated with the agency charged with collecting our tax dollars.

I recently reported on IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman’s plans to hold 1,000 open houses on selected Saturdays through early summer, with the first occurring this Saturday. Shulman said that if individuals and small-business owners brought their information to an open house, they should be able to walk out with their tax issues resolved.

The IRS promised to list the information on its Web site about where people should go to get this help. Yet when I checked, there was no direct link to the information. This is supposed to be a major effort to help taxpayers, especially the unemployed, who are having financial trouble.

Somehow people were supposed to know that when they went to the site, they had to click on “Contact IRS” at the very top of the page.

Then they were supposed to know to click on the link for “Contact Your Local IRS Office” to find information about IRS taxpayer assistance centers.

Under the heading of “extended hours,” they could then find a link to participating offices for Saturday’s open house. The announcement on the IRS Web site specifically says the special hours are “to give struggling taxpayers more opportunity to work directly with IRS employees” and “during the expanded Saturday hours, taxpayers will be able to address economic hardship issues.”

One taxpayer, having been unable to find the information online, visited a Maryland center that just happened to be listed as one of the offices hosting a special open house.

According to the woman’s account — she didn’t want her name used — she was told there wouldn’t be a specialist on-site to help folks who were having trouble paying their taxes.

“So are the 1,000 open houses nationwide only a dream in Shulman’s mind?” the woman asked in an e-mail to me. “I desperately need help in paying my taxes.”

Others who contacted me also reported frustration with finding information online about the special open houses.

I contacted the IRS, suggesting that perhaps it made sense to provide a more direct way for people to find the centers for this major outreach.

Now there is. I don’t know if my calls had anything to do with it, but shortly after my queries, the agency put information about the first open house on a rotating list of spotlight topics on its home page. Click on the picture captioned “IRS Assistance,” and you will be taken to a notice about the open houses.

As for the reader worried she wouldn’t be helped, Susan Carroll, the director of customer assistance, relationships and education, said the woman was given incorrect information. Carroll said centers are being sent a special procedural guide to aid taxpayers.

“We are pulling out all the stops to make sure we have the services available or contacts available for people who come in on Saturday,”Carroll said.

At least 40 IRS personnel from various departments are being sent out to help taxpayers face to face, Carroll said. More than 180 centers will be open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. For smaller offices and those without the extra help, there will be virtual assistance. “People from collections, exam personnel and others will be available by phone,” Carroll said. “If people come in, they don’t need to worry if someone will be there to help them. We will take care of them.”

Let me know how or if you were helped at any of the special open houses. Send me an e-mail to But even if you do encounter problems, don’t let that stop you from finding a way to resolve your tax issues. Waiting to fix the problem only makes your tax debt grow.

Speaking of delays, 1.4 million people who did not file a federal income tax return for 2006 are owed more than $1.3 billion in unclaimed refunds. And time is of the essence to collect that money.

The 2006 return must be filed with the IRS no later than this April 15. You can’t get the refund if you haven’t filed tax returns for 2007 or 2008.

For most taxpayers, there is only a three-year window to claim a refund. The IRS estimates the median unclaimed refund among the people who didn’t file a 2006 return is $604.

Washington Post Writers Group