April 7 2015 07:58 PM

For better or worse, at tax time, the IRS is not answering phone calls

John Koskinen

Contrary to gut instinct, there are times when you need to talk to a human being at the Internal Revenue Service. This seems counter to common sense, though. We're raised to dodge their calls and lose their snail mails. You'd rather get stuck in an elevator with a flesh-eating zombie whose breath reeks of red-curried brains than choose to chat with the IRS.

If your intent is to never interact with them, there is hope. Commissioner John Koskinen recently announced the federal agency is so under-staffed that his team is purposefully not answering 60 percent of incoming taxpayer calls.

Fail! Hurray?

Taxes are due April 15. As the deadline looms, you have a better chance of flipping a coin to determine the number of exemptions you should claim than you do of getting through on the help line.

While some of us have been dialing the agency, frantically trying to determine if Viagra is a viable medical deduction, what have the employees at the IRS been doing? Recovering from March Madness? Playing tax-form Sudoku? Prank-calling freshman congressmen with a fake Kevin Spacey Southern drawl saying they've been picked for a cameo on Season 5 of House of Cards?

No, silly. The IRS appears to still be busy back-burnering corporate loopholers, sticking it to Tea Partiers and ferreting out mom-and-pop business owners who under-claimed doily sales for the previous tax year.

The boss went on record to say that public-assistance lines are being ignored. Glad Mr. Koskinen doesn't oversee a suicide hotline.

I've got firsthand experience being ignored by the IRS. This year I was due a refund, which I was planning to blow on a big Moons Over My Hammy breakfast at Denny's. I e-filed early. Seven weeks after my payback was due, I was no closer to financing that sweet ham-'n-eggs, two-cheeses-on-sourdough morning sammy.

There's a section on irs.gov for tracking an expected refund. You can also Google "Where's My Refund?" Go ahead and type in your Social Security number on the site. Sigh, your personal information is already compiled in a handbook they pass out door-to-door in China. There's also a mobile app for tracing your refund called IRS2Go. (I can't wait for the video game: Grand Theft 1040.)

The problem with an online inquiry is that the only reply is a message saying your taxes are still being processed. Two months of getting the in-process note makes one wonder: Was my tax return accidentally deleted by an octogenarian employee who's just learning to use a Mac? Give me specifics. Tell me if there's a delay because you can't file a form in crayon, or there are tear-drop marks covering the income line, or Red Bull is not a work-related expense.

There's no number for phone assistance available on the IRS website. If you can sniff out the right San Diego IRS field-office number, recall there's an industry-standard 60-percent chance you won't get through. You might, however, get a pre-recorded message that directs you to check the Where's My Refund? website. When you loop back, it's nice the site does inform taxpayers that statuses are only updated once a day. So no need to check back twice within 24 hours. Um, starting at what time?

The IRS: Go to our website. Don't call us. And we won't call you.

The irony will be thick if my refund arrives on April 24. That's Tax Freedom Day 2015. It's the date calculated by the Tax Foundation that signals when you've earned enough money to pay off your tax burden. This year, you'll need to work an average of 114 days to get to this point. That's roughly 31 percent of your annual income.

Americans will pay $3.28 trillion in federal taxes this year, and $1.57 trillion to the states. IRS Commissioner Koskinen says if his agency had more staff, the federal government could have fished out another $2 billion in revenue.

Confusing. Perhaps no good can, or will, come of getting through on the phone to the IRS. Be warned that if somebody calls your phone and says they're with the IRS, they're a scammer. Tightly guarding their customer-service brand, IRS officials defiantly note they'd never call a taxpayer. The IRS will only stick it to you via the post office.

Not surprisingly, 40 percent of IRS employees are four years from retirement eligibility. Three percent of their workers are under 30. That makes it unlikely the IRS will friend us on Facebook. Or, tweet me that my refund just needs a signature on page three to get processed.

It'd be nice to get my tax situation resolved. Social media proactivity would be a modern fix. But the thought of what photos the IRS would post on Instagram does give me pause.

Write to rond@sdcitybeat.com.