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Do More IRS Online Services Put Taxpayer Info. at Risk?

An ever-increasingly complicated tax code, joined with a famously overworked and understaffed Internal Revenue Service, leads many to wish filing their annual tax returns online were an easier task.

But just because it might be easier, and provide much-needed relief to both taxpayers and IRS officials alike, does that make it safer or smarter?

It's a question many are asking right now, as incidences of identity theft, data breaches and fraud continue to make headlines, leaving few agencies in the nation untouched, including the federal government and IRS.

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A recent report by the IRS and the country's National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina E. Olson, sheds some light on the concerns the IRS has about how best to shift more of its services online in order to provide relief to IRS staff and desperate taxpayers, as well as how much access should be given to third-party tax preparers, given the chance for fraud and identity theft.

The concerns are understandably leaving the IRS in a bit of a “catch-22" situation, Olson explains in the report.

On one hand, moving a large percentage of the agency's customer service operations online would “address a high percentage of taxpayer needs, enabling it to curtail existing taxpayer services without significantly impacting taxpayers."

In other words, the agency would require less man-hours to service more taxpayers, Olson says in the report.

Researchers say, inevitably, whenever we turn to technology to try and solve problems or streamline processes, the demand for help from real humans increases.

Likewise, as many bemoan how increasingly complicated the American tax code has become, naturally more people will need human help to navigate it.

For example, according to a recent article by ComputerWorld, taxpayer demand for human help from the IRS has skyrocketed in the past decade.

In 2006, the IRS reportedly received 64 million calls requesting help from a customer service representative. In 2015, the agency received 102 million, an increase of 59 percent in less than 10 years.

How many of those callers actually received help by a human, though? Only a fraction, according to ComputerWorld.

In 2006, of those 64 million calls, around 39 million were routed to a person who helped the caller. That's a little more than half.

Last year, of the 102 million calls received, around 48 million were routed to a human who helped. That's a 59-percent gain in the number of calls, but only a 20-percent gain in actual, human help.

Shifting more of the agency's customer service operations online would also bring up compliance issues, the agency's report indicated, as well as likely cost taxpayers a lot of out-of-pocket costs for hiring the outside help.

“The [IRS'] Future State plan calls for expanding the role of tax return preparers and tax software companies in providing taxpayer assistance — an approach that likely would increase compliance costs for millions of taxpayers who now obtain that assistance from the IRS for free."

And again, the idea brings to mind concerns of cyber security and identity protection, since such a move would require making much more sensitive taxpayer information available online.

In May of 2015, more than 610,000 American taxpayers were affected when hackers were able to break into the IRS computer system and access the “Get Transcript" program, which allows taxpayers to access their tax returns from the year before online.

In addition, third-party tax preparation firms and programs like Intuit's Turbo Tax and TaxSlayer have been breached, leading to the theft of sensitive taxpayer information and fraudulent tax returns being filed, severely impacting victims and preventing them from being able to file their own legitimate tax returns or receive refunds due to them.

Not to mention, there are the usual technical problems associated with relying so much on technology to process taxes. At the start of the 2016 tax season, as both the IRS and eager citizens everywhere were trying to get a jump on early tax returns, what appears to be a computer hardware problem brought everything to a screeching halt for roughly 24 hours, CNBC reports.

So, what is the safest way to file one's taxes? Several state officials say, their number one piece of advice is to make sure you know where your information is going.

If you are allowing anyone to help you process your tax return, make sure they are either a legitimate IRS employee, representative or volunteer; or, if they are from a well-known third-party company such as H&R Block or TurboTax, or even a private for-profit accountant, be sure they are who they claim to be. Meet them in their professional office where it is much easier to verify their credentials.

If you are filing your tax return online, be sure you are on a secure network — do not use public WiFi or a shared computer. One way to accomplish this is to search for local taxpayer assistance events near you, such as at a public library or senior center.

Also, beware of tax scams, and know that the IRS will never attempt to contact you by phone and demand payment or ask for sensitive personal information. IRS officials say the agency will always contact you by mail first to notify you of any problems with your taxes.

And finally, if you suspect your personal information has been compromised, notify the IRS immediately.

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