WASHINGTON -- The nation's tax collector is taking a softer stance on millions of Americans without the money to pay their tax bills.

"Instead of collecting nothing from people with an unpaid tax bill, we're able to collect something," Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rossotti said Thursday. "And for taxpayers facing severe hardship, we'll work with them."The change stems from last year's IRS reform law, which eased numerous requirements so taxpayers can work out installment plans and, in some cases, settle large debts by offering a lower compromise payment.

In addition, IRS agents are being trained to try harder to work things out with taxpayers.

"In the past, we asked them to go out and protect the government's interest," said Harry Manaka, IRS chief of collections. "Now, we're telling our people that customer service and the need to protect taxpayer rights always trumps the need to collect money when they come in conflict."

Many taxpayers do not have the money to pay Uncle Sam but are not doing anything wrong. Accountants give one primary piece of advice: file the tax return by April 15 no matter what to avoid IRS late penalties.

This year, for the first time, the IRS is permitting taxpayers to pay with several popular credit cards: American Express, Mastercard or Discover. Visa decided to sit out this year to see how the program went.

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But paying with plastic means a steep interest rate, sometimes 18 percent or higher. A bank loan is an alternative, but people who cannot get that either may turn to the IRS for an installment agreement at an interest rate now at 8 percent.

Beginning this year, the IRS is guaranteeing that a taxpayer with a debt of $25,000 or less will be able to pay in installments for up to five years with little extra paperwork. Previously, the debt was $10,000 with a three-year payment window.

Taxpayers who get these installment agreements will avoid an IRS lien, which drastically can affect a person's credit and ability to get loans.

"It's not the incentive of the government to ruin anybody's credit," Manaka said. "As long as a taxpayer is current, our incentive is to allow the payments to continue without filing a lien."

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