Lack of Funding Impairs Taxpayer Rights and Increases Taxpayer Burden. The report identifies numerous areas where lack of funding is causing taxpayer problems. “Nowhere is this more apparent than in the IRS’s increasing use of automated enforcement procedures,” Olson said. “To conserve resources, the IRS has largely automated its correspondence audits and its issuance of liens and levies. It typically moves forward with tax assessments without first talking to taxpayers to give them a chance to substantiate their return positions, and it proceeds with liens and levies before having a conversation to find out whether a tax delinquency is due to financial hardship, which would suggest that an installment agreement or offer-in-compromise should be considered.” The report notes that the IRS’s limited resources to conduct outreach and education to taxpayers (particularly small businesses) and to enforce the laws also contribute to its inability to close the annual tax gap, which was most recently estimated at nearly $400 billion in 2006. The report points out that noncompliance violates the rights of compliant taxpayers, who indirectly pay more tax to make up the shortfall. Based on Census Bureau data, the average household effectively paid an extra $3,300 in tax in 2006 to subsidize noncompliance by others.
Recommendations. The report recommends that Congress:
- Consider revising the budget rules so that the IRS is “fenced off” from otherwise applicable spending ceilings and is funded at a level designed to maximize tax compliance, particularly voluntary compliance, with due regard for protecting taxpayer rights and minimizing taxpayer burden.
- Keep in mind in allocating IRS resources that tax compliance requires an appropriate balance between high quality taxpayer service and effective tax-law enforcement, and funding should be provided in a manner that allows the IRS to maintain such a balance.
TAX-RELATED IDENTITY THEFT
The number of tax-related identity theft incidents has increased substantially in recent years. Within TAS, identity theft case receipts increased by more than 650 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2012. At the end of FY 2012, the IRS had almost 650,000 identity-theft cases in its inventory servicewide. The problem has grown worse as organized criminal actors have found ways to steal the Social Security numbers (SSNs) of taxpayers, file tax returns using those taxpayers’ names and SSNs, and obtain fraudulent tax refunds. Then, when the real taxpayer files a return claiming the refund, that return is rejected. The impact on victims is significant. More than 75 percent of taxpayers filing returns are due refunds, which average some $3,000 and are not paid until the IRS fully resolves a case.
IRS Commitments. In 2008, the IRS Commissioner testified about identity theft before a Senate Finance Committee hearing. He stated: “My overall goal as the IRS Commissioner is that when a taxpayer [who is an identity theft victim] contacts us with an issue or concern, we have in place a seamless process that gets the issue resolved promptly.” Later that year, the IRS established an “Identity Protection Specialized Unit” (or “IPSU”), which was designed to provide centralized assistance to victims of identity theft. The National Taxpayer Advocate supported the commitment to centralized and prompt victim assistance.
IRS Performance. The report says the IRS has created numerous task forces and other teams in recent years in an attempt to improve its identity theft processes, yet victims still face the same “labyrinth of procedures and drawn-out timeframes for resolution” that they faced five years ago. The IRS is instructing its employees to advise identity theft victims that it will take 180 days – half a year – to resolve their cases. Complicated cases inevitably will take longer. Thus, the IRS’s procedural changes are not providing faster relief.
The report also says the IRS has decided to reverse course and decentralize victim assistance. It recently created specialized units within each of 21 individual functions to work on identity theft cases, apparently under the belief that most identity theft cases involve a single issue that the relevant specialized unit can work most efficiently. The report expresses concern about this backtracking from a centralized approach.
One-Stop Shopping Needed. TAS itself handled nearly 55,000 identity theft cases in FY 2012, most of which involved multiple issues that required actions by multiple units. The report expresses concern that creation of 21 specialized units will erode the centralized role of the IPSU, require taxpayers to speak with multiple functions, increase the time it takes to resolve cases, and heighten the risk that some issues may not be addressed.
“Taxpayers need ‘one-stop shopping’ – a single point of contact they can work with to resolve all issues in their cases – and the IRS needs a ‘traffic cop’ to make sure that all units complete their actions and that parts of cases do not fall through the cracks,” Olson said. “And six months is an unacceptable period of time to expect taxpayer-victims to wait. The IRS must do more to provide the prompt and seamless assistance to identity theft victims that Commissioner Shulman promised.”