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Tax Filing Season Comes To An End But Cybersecurity And Customer Service Are Still Top Priorities For IRS

May 12, 2016

Alan Huberman, CPA, MST
Partner

Online Cyber ThreatsThe 2016 tax filing season has closed with renewed emphasis on cybersecurity, tax-related identity theft and customer service. Despite nearly constant attack by cybercriminals, the IRS reported that taxpayer information remains secure. The agency also continued to intercept thousands of bogus returns and prevent the issuance of fraudulent refunds.

Cybersecurity

Concerns about cybersecurity and the confidentiality of taxpayer information were paramount during the filing season. According to the IRS, its basic systems are attacked “millions of times” every day by cybercriminals looking for weaknesses. In April, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress that the agency’s basic systems are secure. However, cybercriminals did breach its Get Transcript app in 2015 and other applications are under constant probing and attack by cybercriminals.

Koskinen assured Congress that the agency is beefing up its cybersecurity staffing. The IRS has hired 55 new cybersecurity experts. However, he acknowledged that the agency’s cybersecurity head has left and the position is open. This has drawn criticism from lawmakers who have questioned why such an important job is open. Koskinen said that the lengthy government hiring process is a deterrent to hiring cybersecurity professionals and urged Congress to reinstate the agency’s fast-track hiring process.

Identity theft/Tax scams

Closely related to cybersecurity is tax-related identity theft. The breach of the Get Transcript App in 2015 resulted in $50 million in fraudulent refunds paid to cybercriminals, according to a government watchdog.

Because the filing season has just ended, final statistics will not be released until later this year. However, interim statistics give a snapshot of the vastness of the problem of tax-related identity theft. As of March 5, 2016, the IRS had successfully prevented the issuance of some $180 million in fraudulent refunds.

To help prevent tax-related identity theft, the IRS has enhanced its return processing filters. Many of these enhancements, the IRS has explained, are invisible to taxpayers. Other enhancements have been made as a result of working with return preparers and tax software providers.

The IRS also continues to caution taxpayers to stay vigilant. Tax scams take many different forms, the most common of which are phone calls and emails from thieves who pretend to be from the IRS. They use the IRS name, logo or a fake website to try to steal your money. They may try to steal your identity too. To help avoid being a victim of these tax scams, you should note that:

The real IRS will not:

  • Initiate contact with you by phone, email, text or social media to ask for your personal or financial information.
  • Call you and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about taxes you owe without first mailing you a bill.
  • Require that you pay your taxes a certain way. For example, telling you to pay with a prepaid debit card.

Customer service

The IRS’s level of customer service hit historic lows during the 2015 filing season. Almost two-thirds of all calls to the IRS went unanswered and the agency disconnected millions of callers (so-called “courtesy disconnects”). There were also long lines for in-person assistance at IRS service centers nationwide. The IRS blamed the poor customer service on budget cuts and its inability to hire more employees to answer taxpayer questions.

In December 2015, Congress gave the IRS an additional $290 million and instructed the agency to use the money to improve customer service, along with boosting cybersecurity and combating identity theft. Koskinen told Congress in April that the agency spent more than $100 million of the $290 million on customer service. As a result, the agency’s level of customer service reached as high as 65 percent during the filing season. However, that level will fall to around 50 percent for all of 2016, Koskinen said. The additional employees hired during the filing season were merely temporary employees and their employment ended with the close of the filing season, Koskinen explained.

Return processing

The IRS expects to receive some 150.6 million returns this filing season. That number includes an estimated 13.5 million returns on extension. As a reminder, taxpayers with valid extensions have until October 17, 2016 to file their individual income tax returns.

Alan T. Huberman, CPA is a partner with BlumShapiro, the largest regional business advisory firm based in New England, with offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The firm, with over 400 professionals and staff, offers a diversity of services which includes auditing, accounting, tax and business advisory services. In addition, BlumShapiro provides a variety of specialized consulting services such as succession and estate planning, business technology services, employee benefit plan audits and litigation support and valuation. The firm serves a wide range of privately held companies, government and non-profit organizations and provides non-audit services for publicly traded companies.

Disclaimer: Any written tax content, comments, or advice contained in this article is limited to the matters specifically set forth herein. Such content, comments, or advice may be based on tax statues, regulations, and administrative and judicial interpretations thereof and we have no obligation to update any content, comments or advice for retroactive or prospective changes to such authorities. This communication is not intended to address the potential application of penalties and interest, for which the taxpayer is responsible, that may be imposed for non-compliance with tax law.

 

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