The 2016 filing season has closed with renewed emphasis on cybersecurity, tax-related identity theft and customer service. Despite nearly constant attack by cybercriminals, the IRS reported that taxpayer information remains secure. The agency also continued to intercept thousands of bogus returns and prevent the issuance of fraudulent refunds.
Concerns about cybersecurity and the confidentiality of taxpayer information were paramount during the filing season. According to the IRS, its basic systems are attacked “millions of times” every day by cybercriminals looking for weaknesses. In April, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress that the agency’s basic systems are secure. However, cybercriminals did breach its Get Transcript app in 2015 and other applications are under constant probing and attack by cybercriminals.
Koskinen assured Congress that the agency is beefing up its cybersecurity staffing. The IRS has hired 55 new cybersecurity experts. However, he acknowledged that the agency’s cybersecurity head has left and the position is open. This has drawn criticism from lawmakers who have questioned why such an important job is open. Koskinen said that the lengthy government hiring process is a deterrent to hiring cybersecurity professionals and urged Congress to reinstate the agency’s fast-track hiring process.
Closely related to cybersecurity is tax-related identity theft. The breach of the Get Transcript App in 2015 resulted in $50 million in fraudulent refunds paid to cybercriminals, according to a government watchdog.
Because the filing season has just ended, final statistics will not be released until later this year. However, interim statistics give a snapshot of the vastness of the problem of tax-related identity theft. As of March 5, 2016, the IRS had successfully prevented the issuance of some $180 million in fraudulent refunds.
To help prevent tax-related identity theft, the IRS has enhanced its return processing filters. Many of these enhancements, the IRS has explained, are invisible to taxpayers. Other enhancements have been made working with return preparers and tax software providers.
The IRS’s level of customer service hit historic lows during the 2015 filings season. Almost two-thirds of all calls to the IRS went unanswered and the agency disconnected millions of callers (so-called “courtesy disconnects.”) There were also long lines for in-person assistance at IRS service centers nationwide. The IRS blamed the poor customer service on budget cuts and its inability to hire more employees to answer taxpayer questions.
In December 2015, Congress gave the IRS an additional $290 million and instructed the agency to use the money to improve customer service, along with boosting cybersecurity and combating identity theft. Koskinen told Congress in April that the agency spent more than $100 million of the $290 million on customer service. As a result, the agency’s level of customer service reached as high as 65 percent during the filing season. However, that level will fall to around 50 percent for all of 2016, Koskinen said. The additional employees hired during the filing season were merely temporary employees and their employment ended with the close of the filing season, Koskinen explained.
The IRS expects to receive some 150.6 million returns this filing season. That number includes an estimated 13.5 million returns on extension. Taxpayers on extension have until October 17, 2016 to file.
If you have any questions about the 2016 filing season, please contact our office.