Uncle Sam Expands Teleservices Programs to 'Woo' Taxpayers

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The TeleFile program, the touch-tone phone tax filing system that was rolled nationwide last tax season in a move to make filing more taxpayer friendly, has seen a 25 percent jump in interest from taxpayers and small businesses this year with a reported 4.8 million participants, according to an IRS spokesman.

The system operates through a toll-free number that connects callers to a fully automated voice response unit. Based on such inputs as a social security number, income level and date of birth, the system automatically calculates taxable income and the tax owed or tax due, according to an IRS spokesman. The customer service number serves as a unique identifier that replaces signatures.

The system, which is operable around the clock, is open to individuals who file 1040EZ forms and meet a range of requirements relating to sources of income and being under 65-years-old.

The IRS identifies potential TeleFile users through its database and issues packets to those who qualify; the packets include the toll-free number to call for filing, a customer service number, which serves as a personal identification number.

Also now included in the system debuting last year for individual filers only, are small businesses using the 941 form. Last year 224,900 small businesses filed as part of the pilot test throughout 14 states spanning Delaware to Florida, and including Washington.

An estimated 300,000 small businesses are expected to file this year. The IRS issued 3 million packets to qualifying small businesses and projects a 9-10 percent response rate, according to Nancy Ebersole, project manager for TeleFile's Covington, KY, center.

Ebersole said calls are routed on a round robin basis to one of TeleFile's three centers in either Covington, KY, Ogden, UT, or Memphis. The voice response unit connects with a database to ensure callers are qualified and also handles the computations for returns.

Although the changes were long in the works prior to Vice President Al Gore's recent recommended initiative known as the Taxpayer Treatment and Service Improvements Program, the timing heightens the customer service focus that seems to be taking hold of Washington.

"Ever since the Finance Senate Committee hearings last fall we have been keeping the phones longer," an IRS spokesman said. "It is all really a push toward looking at paying taxes from the taxpayer's point of view." The agency's inbound call centers are currently open six days weekly, 16 hours a day. In the 1999 season the call centers will operate seven days weekly, 24 hours a day.

The IRS expects to collect about $1.3 trillion in tax payments this season.

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