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IRS CALLERS GET THE BUSY SIGNAL

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It used to be that if you called the Internal Revenue Service for tax advice, you had a good chance of getting a wrong answer.

Now, more answers are accurate, but chances are greater than nine in 10 you'll get a busy signal or be put on hold until you hang up, according to congressional investigators.The General Accounting Office, in a report issued as the IRS prepared for a new tax-filing season, said the answer rate on toll-free assistance lines fell to 8 percent in 1995 from 21 percent a year earlier.

The GAO, Congress' investigative arm, counted calls as going unanswered if callers received a busy signal or were put on hold for longer than seven minutes.

As recently as 1989, the GAO said, 58 percent of calls got through but only 63 percent of the IRS' answers were accurate. Last year, the accuracy rate was 91 percent, up from 89 percent in 1994.

However, early in the 1995 filing season, IRS workers demonstrated some difficulty in explaining changes in eligibility for the earned income tax credit, the GAO said in the report issued last week.

The IRS blames the increase in busy signals on callers' use of repeat dialers and said access is much better considering that many callers get through after trying four or five times.

And the agency pointed out that it answered 39 million calls last year, 3 million more than its budget provided.

But the GAO said the "IRS' ability to answer more calls than it estimated it could answer means little to the many taxpayers whose calls to the IRS went unanswered or who gave up in frustration after receiving busy signals."

It said the answer rate on toll-free lines for ordering tax forms was much better, 50 percent, but "there was still much room for improvement."

IRS spokesman Wilson Fadely said the agency expected to improve its ability to answer taxpayer questions this year by setting aside a separate toll-free number for people with account problems.

It also is encouraging alternative ways to get tax information, such as reading the material on the agency's Internet site and listening to tape recordings by telephone.

The GAO also criticized the IRS for not sufficiently warning taxpayers last year that their refunds could be delayed as part of a new anti-fraud crackdown.

Last year, the IRS delayed 7 million of the 74 million refunds it issued through mid-June. About 3 million had missing or invalid Social Security numbers, but the rest did not.

The GAO said it supported checking Social Security numbers to combat fraud, particularly among claimants of the earned income tax credit for the working poor.

"But we fail to see how any harm would have been caused by simply alerting taxpayers to the possibility that their refunds might be delayed even if there were no problems with their" Social Security numbers, it said.

The IRS said it issued refunds claimed on paper returns, on average, in 36 days last year, the same as during the previous year. But, the GAO said, figuring in the returns delayed without justification, the average actually worsened to 38 days.

The IRS said it plans to continue checking Social Security numbers this year but has adjusted its procedures so that few refunds on returns with valid numbers will be delayed.

Elsewhere in its report, the GAO said the IRS' computer systems generally worked well last year - with one significant exception. A new system designed to scan and produce an electronic image of Form 1040EZ, the simplest individual return, suffered problems at all five IRS centers where it was used. Two of the centers stopped processing the 1040EZ on the system entirely, while the other three stopped processing for extended periods.

IRS spokesman Fadely said that last year was the first for the system and "this year we're very confident those problems have been resolved."