As tax day nears, it has become ritual for the Internal Revenue Service to soothe procrastinating filers with promises of help on their returns — if they would only ask.
But even as IRS Commissioner John Koskinen made the annual plea Friday, urging people to send in their 1040 tax forms by April 15, he acknowledged that his understaffed, underfunded agency often struggles to answer its phones.
“It’s still hard to get somebody on the phone,” he said during a visit to Boston’s IRS offices in the John F. Kennedy Federal Building.
Last year, 18 million calls didn’t go through, Koskinen said, or roughly 40 percent of those made. Currently, about 70 percent of calls are being answered because more IRS staffers are assigned to the task during tax season, but the commissioner said that will change.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Koskinen said, “unless we can convince Congress that taxpayers deserve better service, and therefore we deserve the funding to meet that need.”
Instead, the agency’s funding has been cut over the last four years by more than $1 billion, and it has lost some 10,000 workers.
That has made it more difficult for the IRS — which is responsible for collecting more than $2 trillion annually — to help taxpayers prepare their returns, complete audits, track down people who fail to file, or identify and go after anyone filing a fraudulent return.
Koskinen called return fraud a “major battle” that costs the country billions and said his agency has been working to improve the filters used to detect it. The IRS has increased related indictments and prosecutions, he added, with more than 400 people imprisoned last year.
Still, Koskinen said, more needs to be done to ensure that the IRS can adequately check a filing before a return is paid out.
To do that, he said, the IRS needs to get W-2 tax forms — used to verify returns — from employers earlier. Currently, businesses are required to send those forms to employees by the end of January, but don’t have to have them to the IRS until the end of March.
He’s hoping to change that in the coming months.
“One of the things we’re going to try to do with Congress is move up the time we get W-2 forms,” he said. “Increase the chances that we don’t send money to the wrong people.”
In the meantime, Koskinen urged taxpayers who haven’t filed to remain calm and ask for help, especially given how close tax day is.
“That’s when you make mistakes as simple as your Social Security number isn’t right or you don’t spell your name right,” he said. “Check with us. . . . We really are delighted and anxious to help you.”
On the agency’s website, for instance, taxpayers can find answers to frequently asked questions, learn how to set up an installment plan if they can’t afford to pay their taxes all at once, or download an app that allows them to check on the status of their return.
Taxpayers who make less than $58,000 also can find free software to help them file.
At the same time, Koskinen asked taxpayers to remain vigilant against scammers claiming to be legitimate tax preparers and anyone claiming to be from the IRS and wanting to get their tax information over the phone.
“The only time we ever call anybody is after you’ve gotten [written] notices from us that there is a question about your return,” he said. “If you’re surprised to hear from us on the phone, you’re probably not hearing from us.”