People who counted on Internal Revenue Service advisers to help them fill out their tax forms last year must have blanched when they read the recent Associated Press story about IRS help centers.
Treasury Service employees called the help centers, posing as taxpayers in need of assistance with their forms, between July and December 2002.
The callers received correct answers to only 57 percent of their tax law questions during the course of the study. Forty-five percent of the questions were answered correctly and completely. In 12 percent of the cases, the answer was correct but incomplete.
Internal Revenue Service employees gave wrong answers to 28 percent of the questions.
Twelve percent went unanswered, with callers told to research the question themselves in IRS literature.
The calls went completely unanswered 3 percent of the time.
The IRS disputed the findings and came up with a 67 percent correct rate for itself -- which still is pitiful.
It's unconscionable that taxpayers who depend on the IRS would get answers that might cause them to end up facing penalties because of faulty advice they receive.
Of course, legislators are calling on the IRS to clean up its act.
Until improvement can be made, taxpayers would be smart to rely on private tax-preparation firms for help. There's a charge, but legitimate firms sign the forms and stand behind their work in case of an audit. As a result, they're likely to be better prepared to interpret the tax code than the people responsible for creating it.