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| POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

Now If We Could Only Start Paying Taxes With Virtual Money

February 07, 1996|DANIEL AKST

I can't imagine what the Internet is coming to when the Internal Revenue Service, of all people, turns up on the World Wide Web with one of the cooler Web sites I've run across in a while. Such is tax season in 1996.

Nor is the IRS alone in offering tax help online. It turns out that income tax forms, tax advice and other tax-related material abound on the Internet as well as on all the major online services. You can even file your taxes electronically, although that's another story.

For now, we'll stick to finding what you need with your modem. So back to the IRS Web site, at http://www.irs.ustreas.gov/ prod/. Frankly, I'm in awe. The IRS site has colorful retro graphics, witty titles and a great many of the forms and publications you'll need to get your taxes done.

Unfortunately, the search function at the IRS site was broken when I visited--searches yielded "server error" messages--and so in my hunt for tax forms I went over the head of the IRS to the U.S. Treasury itself. You can do this too by pointing your Web browser at http://www .ustreas.gov/. Then, simply click on the menu item offering tax forms.

From there, you will be offered the choice of a long list of all forms, or a searchable database, which is what I used. A search of 'ink-stained wretch" turned up nothing, so I decided to leave my occupation aside and try addressing the IRS in its own language. I typed in Schedule C, and sure enough, got a list of tax forms involving the word "schedule" and the letter C.

I tried searching "business income," and while that didn't yield a Schedule C, it did produce a whole list of IRS publications, including Form 2106 (Employee Business Expenses), Publ 917 (Business Use of a Car), Publ 535 (Business Expenses), Publ 334 (Tax Guide for Small Business) and Publ 583 (Taxpayers Starting a Business).

Finally, I looked up the title of Schedule C from my 1994 return and searched for it. "Profit or Loss from Business" did the trick. No mention of "Schedule C," but it was clearly the same form, so I decided to download it.

*

The first thing I noticed is that the form is available in three formats: PDF, PCL and PS. These are also common file extensions, as in taxform.ps. A word on each:

* PS refers to files in the PostScript format, which is fine if you have a Postscript printer. If you don't have such a printer, pick a different format.

* PCL files are in the format commonly used by most non-PostScript printers. If you run a PC with Windows, you probably have one of these.

* PDF files are in Adobe Acrobat format. Almost everyone can use these, including Mac and Unix users, provided you have downloaded and installed the free Acrobat reader that is widely available. In fact, it's available at the IRS Web site, or simply by visiting Adobe at http://www.adobe.com/. In my opinion, this is worth doing. Acrobat is a widely used format, and PDF files tend to be smaller than those in other formats, making for faster downloads.

(You'll also find tax software with the ubiquitous .zip extension, which means that, in order to save storage space and download time, they've been compressed with pkzip. You'll need pkunzip to decompress these files. You may already have a copy of pkunzip on your hard drive, since a good many programs use it to unpack themselves when you install them, but if not, this indispensable program can be found on any online service or the Internet.)

*

Since my printer and PC can accommodate all three formats, I downloaded all three files as a test. The PS and PCL files unpacked with thoughtful instructions on how to print them. The PDF file necessitated that I download the latest version of the Acrobat Reader, version 2.1. All three files printed identically, right down to the "Printed on recycled paper" footnote that the IRS neglected to remove for this purpose. But the PS and PCL versions required dumping to the printer with such ugly DOS commands as: COPY /B f1040sc.pcl lpt1 or COPY f1040sc.ps lpt1.

Of course, there is a private sector solution to these headaches. On America Online, for instance, use the keyword TAX to find a cornucopia of tax-related information, including some well-organized tax help from BusinessWeek. And of course, forms, neatly arrayed, in PDF format, with the Acrobat reader available on the spot.

*

AOL also has a TaxLogic area where you can post tax questions and get answers from a panel of tax "experts," with the usual disclaimers. In characteristic fashion, AOL has done a beautiful job of pulling things together, offering access to tax-related Web sites, tax-software support and so forth.

CompuServe users needn't despair. They can simply go TAXES for a variety of tax materials, including forms. This area is a little H&R Block-centric, of course, since it owns CompuServe, but there's still useful stuff, including CompuServe's excellent vendor forums and soon the ability to file electronically for a fee.

Prodigy, on the other hand, seemed to offer little in the way of tax support. The only thing I could find was a lonesome tax-related column that appears periodically. Of course, you can always use Prodigy to access the World Wide Web.

Daniel Akst welcomes messages at Dan.Akst@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.well.com/~akst/.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

More on Taxes

Another good place for more general tax advice is NetTaxes, at http://www.ypn.com/taxes/. NetTaxes functions as a gateway to tax-related material in cyberspace, even referring to matter on the private online services. NetTaxes also offers reviews of various sites, some sensible advice and a simple but attractive design. NetTaxes is part of YPN, or Your Personal Network, which is run by the folks who produce NetGuide books.

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