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Group's Effort to Boost Electronic Filing Backfires

Taxes: IRS contradicts preparers' claims about anthrax-related delays processing returns and sending refunds.

January 03, 2002|LIZ PULLIAM WESTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A national tax preparers group is urging Americans to file their returns electronically this year ''as a patriotic gesture'' and to avoid anthrax-related postal delays.

The only problem is that the IRS doesn't expect any slowdowns this year in processing returns or getting people their refunds because of anthrax.

''We're always getting strange things in the mail, and we've had screening processes in place for years,'' said IRS spokesman Don Roberts. ''We don't anticipate any changes'' because of anthrax concerns, he said.

The National Assn. of Enrolled Agents sent a news release Wednesday saying just the opposite. The trade group, which represents 10,000 tax preparers, claimed that because of anthrax worries the IRS would use "an off-site mail facility to process all incoming mail," which "could result in delays in refunds and posting of tax filing dates."

The news release went on to say that "extra work, time and effort on the part of IRS employees" to process paper returns could be eliminated "if, as a patriotic gesture of support, every taxpayer would file their returns electronically."

In fact, the IRS processes returns at 10 centers throughout the country and has no plans to use additional mail facilities, Roberts said. The IRS has long screened its mail for dangers such as anthrax as well as for unusual items, such as clothing sent by taxpayers ("the shirt off their backs") and checks carved in wood or made with other unlikely materials, Roberts said.

Electronic filing does save the government time and money, which is why Congress has mandated that 80% of all returns be e-filed by 2007. E-filing also speeds taxpayers' refunds and eliminates most math errors.

Last year, some 40 million of the 127 million taxpayers who filed returns did so electronically, and the IRS hopes 45 million will use e-filing this year.

"We certainly like the idea of people encouraging electronic filing, but we don't exactly agree with the way [the NAEA] got there," Roberts said.

Sharon Cranford, the NAEA's director of public policy, said she and other NAEA officials were briefed by senior IRS officials in December about possible anthrax-related delays during the filing season.

Cranford said the news release, which was drafted and sent while she was on vacation, probably should not have predicted that there would be problems.

"I would have crafted it more artfully," Cranford said.

The IRS did experience some delays last year in getting its mail because of anthrax detected at Washington's Brentwood postal facility, which processes mail for the service's headquarters as well as for many other government agencies in the nation's capitol.

The IRS issued a news release Dec. 20 saying that taxpayers who had filed petitions with the U.S. Tax Court might have received collection notices in error because of mail delays.

The Tax Court, which normally notifies the IRS to stop collection actions when it receives a taxpayer's petition to hear a case, did not receive mail postmarked in mid-October until Nov. 29 because of the Brentwood problems.

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The Benefits of E-Filing

Filing a tax return electronically can dramatically speed up a refund and eliminate math and other errors that can delay a return's processing. Here's what taxpayers should know:

Why e-file? E-filing can result in a refund in two to three weeks, compared with four to eight weeks for a return on paper.

To speed refunds further, taxpayers can ask the Internal Revenue Service to deposit returns directly in their bank accounts. E-filing also eliminates common mistakes such as incorrect Social Security numbers.

How to e-file: Returns can be filed electronically via a tax preparer, by using tax-preparation software such as Intuit's TurboTax or by using a tax-preparation Web site such as H&R Block's www.hrblock.com. The cost is typically included in the tax preparation fee, although some preparers charge an additional $20 or so.

How to pay: Taxpayers who owe the IRS money also can file their returns electronically. These taxpayers can either mail a check, pay by credit card or instruct the IRS to deduct the balance owed from their bank accounts.

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