WASHINGTON — Three out of 10 people who call the toll-free IRS help line this tax season won't get through to a human being — and that's if the agency meets its goals for service.
Callers lucky enough to get through will have to wait on hold an average of nearly 12 minutes, a level of service deemed unacceptable in a report issued Wednesday by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson.
Such poor service "will cause problems for taxpayers and the IRS alike, as some taxpayers give up and don't bother to file or they make avoidable errors that the IRS then must devote resources toward resolving," said Olson, an independent watchdog within the IRS.
The IRS said it has been inundated with an unprecedented number of calls the past two years from taxpayers with questions about temporary tax breaks passed by Congress to help revive the economy — a phenomenon that is expected to continue this year.
To help, the agency has upgraded its Web site, posting answers to frequent questions, including the status of tax refunds.
"Resources available to deliver telephone services are finite and staffing allocations must be made in light of competing demands necessary to meet other customer needs and preferences," the IRS said in a written response to the report.
Some callers could get busy signals while others will abandon calls after being informed of the wait time. Others may be prompted to go to the IRS Web site, or have their questions answered by the automated system.
The agency's goal is to connect 71 percent of callers to a real person, down from a recent high of 87 percent in 2004.
Olson issues a report each year to Congress that highlights the most serious problems taxpayers encountered in their dealings with the IRS. This year, poor phone service topped the list.
Another problem she cited: The number of federal tax liens filed against delinquent taxpayers increased nearly fivefold over the past decade, to 966,000 in 2009. Olson said many IRS liens were unnecessary and even hurt some taxpayers' ability to pay back taxes because their credit ratings were affected.
The IRS said liens help protect the government's claim for back taxes when taxpayers file for bankruptcy protection.
Taxpayer services were a big issue in 1998 when Congress overhauled the agency, guaranteeing new rights for taxpayers. Before the law, the IRS had "engaged in heavy-handed enforcement tactics," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "I worry that the IRS is reverting to some old habits to taxpayers' detriment."
The percentage of callers getting accurate legal information has improved since the law was passed. In 2001, just 80 percent of the people who called the toll-free help line received accurate information, according to the agency's own estimates. In 2009, 93 percent of callers got accurate information, according to the IRS.
In 2008, the IRS received 151 million calls on its toll-free line — up from 67 million the year before. Many of the calls were about tax rebate checks issued by the IRS as part of an economic stimulus package passed by Congress. That year, only 53 percent of callers to the toll-free line reached a person.
In 2009, the agency received 94 million calls — some were about the previous year's rebate checks while others were about a new round of tax breaks approved in February to help revive the nation's ailing economy. In 2009, 70 percent of callers reached a person.
The IRS expects another busy tax season this year as taxpayers continue to have questions about temporary tax breaks, including one for homebuyers.