OFFBEAT: On hold with the IRS

It's September, and that tax rebate and stimulus check I was promised upon filing on time in April is starting to look like a desert
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

It's September, and that tax rebate and stimulus check I was promised upon filing on time in April is starting to look like a desert mirage.

The budget is running dry, I'm thirsty, and the waterfall seems just within my reach -- but when I grab for it, I get a handful of sand.

In other words, I was rejected by the IRS.

After the refrigerator stopped working, my microwave fizzled out with one last defiant jolt and the credit card I requested with a solid financial history was denied within the same 48-hour period, it was just enough to make me feel like a failure at life.

I know I'm not alone -- by some estimates, as many as 18 percent of all electronically-filed tax returns experience my fate in the United States. More than 19 million returns have been filed this way since the program debuted in 2003, the IRS says.

Electronic filing can be a great option, especially if you qualify for the free stuff.

Once you go through with it, though, it's up to the individual tax preparation sites to notify you if there's a problem. Sometimes months can pass without any word of your rejection. They're supposed to send an e-mail message directing you to the site where you can check your status. Not everyone gets the memo.

Because of privacy concerns, I'm told, tax preparation companies like Liberty Tax Service, the one I tried, don't say much in this e-mail. It may read something like, "Thank you for filing with us, and feel free to check your status."

With all spam, junk mail, and pop-up notices about male enhancement, a polite message like this might get lost in the mass-annihilation.

(Most might respond better to a more direct approach like, "Thanks for playing, but try again if you ever want to see your money.")

And if they try calling the IRS hotline for an update, they'll either be transferred to an automated response telling them to wait up to eight weeks before checking again or drift down an endless stream of Muzak like the Blue Danube or Nutcracker Suite.

These pleasant tunes are probably meant to conjure up pleasant images of graceful ballerinas flitting across the ballroom. But after 39 minutes of this, I start to imagine one of these dancers will lend me a long piece of tulle so I can strangle something. After receiving only the automated replies in May, June and August, I've decided to play the waiting game. I have to cut my hold sessions short the first two times (after 25 minutes each) because work gets in the way.

On the third try, I manage to sit through a 10-minute train, take calls from my husband, mom and friend; and have a leisurely lunch at Quizno's. A man behind the counter there wishes me luck and tells me his friend waited 21/2 hours.

It must be my lucky day, because after 50 minutes, a woman with a thick Brooklyn accent introduces herself as Judy.

I tell her I understand they receive a high volume of calls and ask if they've considered a call-back service like those offered by utility companies.

If the estimated wait is more than five minutes, they'll advise you to leave a number and promise to call you back at a scheduled time, usually within the hour.

Judy says some type of system is supposed to kick in when there's a "really high volume" of calls, but she doesn't know how many calls it takes for that to happen.

It's a moot point by now. She tells me I have until Oct. 15 to re-file my forms (apparently rejected because of an address error) and to have a great day. I decide the extra money spent on an actual tax preparer is a small price to pay for some human interaction and the assurance that my rebate is on its way. As for the hailed stimulus check Uncle Sam wants me to spend at the mall, I'm pretty sure most of it will be offset by the phone bill I've racked up these past few days.