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IRS planning a random check of 50,000 tax returns next fall

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WASHINGTON — A fresh reminder to save those receipts: The IRS wants to do a special random check of about 50,000 tax returns filed this year in an effort to improve targeting of taxpayers for audits in the future.

Unlike past efforts, IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti said Wednesday that fewer of those selected for the information-gathering project will be subjected to intense, face-to-face questioning that drew broad criticism.

"The program should be no more burdensome than it needs to be and be fair to everybody," Rossotti told reporters.

The information, a snapshot of the taxpaying public, could help the Internal Revenue Service reduce by 15,000 a year the number of audits that turn out to be unnecessary. Almost a quarter of audits done now result in no change.

"We don't want to audit somebody who doesn't need to be audited," Rossotti said.

The project, officially called the National Research Program, was last done in 1988. When IRS officials tried a repeat in 1994, it was withdrawn in a hail of criticism from Congress and elsewhere as far too heavy-handed.

Those past efforts required each selected taxpayer — in 1988, it was 54,000 — to undergo a rigid, time-consuming, line-by-line audit of the tax return, even down to bringing birth certificates to prove the identities of their children. A taxpayer's accountant or lawyer wasn't allowed to participate.

This time, officials promise it will be different. Rossotti said about 2,000 taxpayers will face line-by-line examinations that will be less detailed than in the past. The biggest group, about 30,000 taxpayers, will undergo a more limited in-person audit, but those will be less intrusive than in the past and can be attended by a professional tax preparer.

An additional 9,000 taxpayers can expect a correspondence audit through the mail, with the remaining 8,000 likely to have no contact at all from the IRS. The study is intended to reflect the taxpaying population as a whole, with a more detailed look at taxpayers earning above $100,000 a year compared with previous years.

The audits are expected to begin in the fall on individual returns from the 2001 tax year, for which returns are due April 15. Rossotti said the program will not increase the overall number of IRS audits and will not require an increase in the agency's budget.