Video: Don't rely on IRS for tax help

NBC News correspondent
updated 4/13/2005 7:39:48 PM ET 2005-04-13T23:39:48

In visits to IRS help centers, undercover Treasury Department investigators made a startling discovery: The IRS gives taxpayers correct information far less often than you might think.

It's no surprise to Minoo Southgate.

"Unfortunately, they gave me incorrect information," she says.

Southgate says she sought help from the IRS on her taxes, got bad advice, was later audited and lost thousands of dollars.

"I think people should not trust oral information that they get from the IRS," she says. "If they do, they're doing that at their own risk."

The Treasury Department inspector general says she's right. The investigation found:

  • If you call, the IRS has the right answer only 86 percent of the time;
  • If you visit an IRS help center, it's 67 percent of the time;
  • If you send an e-mail, the answer is right only 64 percent of the time.

That's if you can figure out how to send one. In a recent Government Accountability Office report, the IRS admitted moving its e-mail form to "a less prominent position" on its Web site so that you'd have to "stumble upon it accidentally" to find it. To get there, you click the site map, scroll down, click help, scroll down again and that's the only way you'll ever find it.

"When you submit questions through the Web site, you ought to be able to get answers," says Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "It shouldn't be difficult to access."

The IRS told NBC it was overwhelmed by e-mail questions and admits there's a problem with its accuracy rates.

"We regret any circumstance in which one of our taxpayers has received inaccurate advice from us," says IRS Deputy Commissioner Mark Matthews. "That's why we're determined to keep improving our accuracy levels."

The IRS says it couldn't comment on Southgate's case, citing privacy, but she says their pledge to improve comes too late for her.

"You go to the IRS for the correct information and if they give you the wrong information, then where else can you look?" she asks.

And that leaves many looking for solutions to the frequently asked question, "How can you make sure the "S" in IRS really stands for 'service'?"

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