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Susan Tompor: Tax season opens Tuesday as IRS starts taking returns

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

January 18, 2016


H&R Block has already rolled out its TV commercials promoting a chance for 1,000 people a day to win $1,000. It’s not Powerball. But it is another push to get us rolling into tax season. H&R Block is seeing customers already, preparing 1040s and is just waiting to hit the send button once the IRS begins accepting returns on Tuesday.

"We’re open and doing returns right now," said H&R Block CEO Bill Cobb in a phone interview Thursday. "The refund has become the major financial event of the year for many people."

More than 70 percent of tax filers nationwide are expected to receive federal income tax refunds this year. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service issued 109 million refunds. The average refund: $2,797.

The IRS said Thursday that more than 150 million tax returns are expected to be filed this year. Most people will have until April 18 — a few days after the typical deadline of April 15 — to file their 2015 tax returns and pay any tax due because of Emancipation Day falling on April 15. Taxpayers in Maine and Massachusetts have until April 19 because of Patriot’s Day observances on April 18.

The tax season already has its share of grumbling. Consumers remain worried about identity theft. The IRS says its phone lines will have more staffing but will still be so busy that people should go to www.irs.gov first to try to get answers.

Taxpayers who need a copy of a tax return for a specific tax year will face added hurdles this season when it comes to getting information via the IRS Get Transcript program.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said tax filers are asked to plan ahead if they need an old tax return via Get Transcript. A filer could still request a return for a previous tax year online at www.irs.gov via the Get Transcript system.

But thanks to some serious ID fraud relating to Get Transcript last year, legitimate taxpayers will face more roadblocks, too.

This year, you won’t be able to quickly print out that old return after viewing it online. Instead, the earlier return will be mailed to the address that the IRS has on record. And it could take five to 10 calendar days to receive that old return, Koskinen said.

At some point, tax filers will once again be able to view that previous return online and print it out. But that service won’t be available until new safeguards are tested out, he said.

And here’s another warning about scam artists: The IRS states that the IRS never sends emails requesting that you obtain or access your transcripts.

The change is a result of some previous activity by fraudsters. Last June, Koskinen reported that between mid-February and mid-May 2015 criminals successfully gained access to 100,000 Get Transcript accounts. Crooks had tried to access roughly another 100,000 accounts.

Tax preparers and the IRS are working more diligently together this season to stop fraud early in the season right when it starts.

"We’re going to share that information when we see suspicious returns," said H&R Block’s Cobb. "We’re being very vigilant on suspicious returns."

The IRS said many new safeguards are in place but will be invisible to the taxpayer. The idea is to better authenticate the taxpayer’s identity.

One visible change: Taxpayers who use private-sector tax software accounts will see new password protections. New standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. Also there will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

More than four out of five returns are expected to be filed electronically. But again, the online filing system can be used by scam artists who steal important Social Security data and other numbers from legitimate taxpayers.

The fake IRS phone calls, of course, will continue this tax season. So consumers are warned to watch out and not fall for fraudsters trying to collect money in the name of the IRS.

Down the line there are some concerns brewing that the scam artists who bother us with all those IRS-impostor phone calls could end up getting a little help from Congress at some point now that private debt collectors will be allowed to go after people who really haven’t paid their federal income taxes yet.

The highway funding deal reached in Washington in December included a tax collection provision that would allow the IRS to turn to private debt collectors and make robocalls, if necessary.

Koskinen said Thursday that the IRS will be working to design a program that will enable private debt collectors to collect old tax debts and such a program would be in place later this year.

Koskinen said the IRS is reviewing possibly making sure that taxpayers first receive a letter from the IRS saying the debt will be handed over to a private collection firm. The debt collectors might then send a letter in advance of making any phone calls, Koskinen said.

The IRS wants to maintain a strategy to let tax filers know that if they’re surprised to be hearing from the IRS, they likely aren’t hearing from the IRS.

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services