(Un)Resolved Issues with the IRS and User Hostile Government Processes

Top level note: while exhausting, this is nothing compared to the injustices and level of violence that some citizens of our country are exposed to. So while you read, and hopefully enjoy, this process malfunction piece please keep in mind it's not the biggest problem we're facing.

And now to the post.

I recently had an issue where I needed to call the IRS, multiple times, about the status of both my 2018 and 2019 tax returns. It was ... a trainwreck, to put it mildly. Yes, there is a pandemic and yes, their offices have been closed for a long time - as the representative on the line reminded me. But these issues aren't confined to the pandemic.

Allow me to begin.

It started when I tried to e-file my 2019 taxes, same as I have been doing for years. Filing was rejected with an error code I couldn't easily look up. I contacted my e-filing provider, which took awhile as this was after everything closed down here in the States. In the interim, I tried just filing again - and was unsurprisingly met with the same error code.

I finally heard back from my e-filing provider and apparently the error was that I didn't enter "my PIN". I don't have a PIN, "you should have a PIN, check your mail". I don't have a PIN, "have you moved recently?" Not for years. "Ok, paper file and call the IRS."


Calling the IRS is no joke. Especially when everything was closed. I tried calling a local office when I failed to get a human on the main line, but oh right that's closed. (It should be, mind you, people shouldn't be exposed to COVID because I should have a PIN that I don't have.) Then I Duck for "how to reach a human at the IRS" and find some instructions. Doing the straightforward method about "questions about my tax return" resulted in me verifying my SSN, amount of my 2019 return, etc., only to have the phone tree terminate with a "we cannot access your return at this time" message.

Ok. (Again.)

So I manage to reach a human, and was bounced over to Taxpayer Protection (TPP) as apparently there was a fraud alert on my account. Great. I have an abusive ex and lots of accounts locked down as a result, so my anxiety spikes wondering if she could have done something.

But who needs an abusive ex when you have the IRS.

I kid. Kind of.

I finally reach another human at TPP. The summary of the next 20ish minutes is:

Rep: You should have a PIN.
Me: I don't have a PIN.
Rep: Did you check your mail?
Me: ... yes.
Rep: Did you move recently?
Me: ... no.
Rep: I'll check your account again, please hold for 5-7 minutes.
Me: Ok.
Rep: (Returns) Oh. We flagged your account but never sent you a PIN. Sorry about that. Did you paper file?
Me: I did.
Rep: Great, that resolves that. But there's an issue with your 2018 return.
Me: ... what? E-File Provider says that the return was filed successfully, etc.?

Then there was a long session of me Verifying I Am Who I AM, as you might intuit when you're speaking to TPP. What's your mother's full maiden name, what's your father's full name, what's your date of birth, city of birth, and so on.

Ok. (I keep say it's ok for my own emotional state. This will not be the last Ok in this post, I promise.)

Then they tell me they mailed me something that I didn't answer, describing it as "it might have looked like spam but it wasn't spam".


When was that sent out? No exact date. But last year. Sometime.


There's confusion about whether or not I received my 2018 refund / return, which I'd think I'd notice, so I leave to check paperwork and get off the multihour phone call, looking for anything on the federal (not state) 2018 return.

This isn't even the end. It's only Mayish still.

The lead time for a paperfiled return is about 45 days. So after hearing nothing on the 2019 return, I call again in July, but before the new tax deadline, to try to verify that my paper return was at least received if not processed. The rep at that point seemd to indicate that it was received, but not processed. (Why I phrased it that way will become clear in a moment.)

I wait another month. At this point I'm due for a change of address, for the first time in years, and need to make sure that the "totally should have arrived by now" returns will go to the correct place.

The joke's on me.

I call the IRS. I had forgotten, somehow, in the intervening weeks that the phone tree terminates in a hangup and no human when I select the options that make sense for questions about about the 1040. I Duck, again, for reaching a human and follow the instructions. I spent 2 hours and 16 minutes on the phone. Most of that on hold.


They still don't know about my 2018 return. They're sending me a letter. They cannot change my address, but the letter should forward if it doesn't arrive before my move out date so I can address it (i.e. call again) at that time.


Despite the previous rep seeming to be able to verify that my paper return had at least been received somewhere, the current rep could not. That conversation can be summarized as "your paper return would be stored at our processing facility, this is the call center, don't you know those are separate systems?" As someone who works in systems, all I could think of the metaphorically broken, stripped gears that were failing to interlock for someone on the phone not to be able to get that kind of data. Don't know which of the multiple filing centers across the US would even have my return to directly call, the received returns cannot be scanned or otherwise logged into a system so that people who answer the phones can actually answer questions. No wonder the phone tree terminates - that said, it should terminate before having me verify my SSN, return amount, and filing status as apparently it can't even be known. Just put that "Cannot know" response at the top of the tree.


They cannot update my address in their system as it'll revert whenever they process my 2019 return. No they cannot override it. Federal documents, like paper returns, do not forward. I point out that means the new owner of my current residence will then have access to my refund. The rep said she "knows" but that's how it's setup. It cannot forward. I asked how I would know whether or not my return processed, if it won't forward. Apparently the answer is that when my tax return is returned to them, that will kick off a letter to be sent to the same address that my tax return was returned to sender. That letter will forward. At which point I can then call them, they can update my address, and then resend my tax return. Oh, and don't re-file electronically in the interim, that'll flag my account and create More Problems. Or as the rep said, "I cannot advise you to do that at this time."

As someone who lives in processes and systems, this is just So Much for my brain.

First of all, there doesn't seem to be a way to input that paper filed returns are received. Can't print a barcode to put on the envelope, even if the envelope isn't opened, to be scanned on arrival at a facility? This should be randomized so someone can't (easily) get the tax information from the envelope, literally just a tracking number.

To the rep's point that "this is the call center, that's the processing facility" - since the users need these systems to talk to each other, they should. Put some tracking and confirmation information and make sure it reports into a centralized source of truth that is accessible to the people in the call center so they can answer questions like "did you even receive my return?" In fact, track the "most common questions" that need to be answered by a human, i.e that you cannot put a canned resonse in your phone tree for, and make sure that those working the call center are able to actually pull the data they need to answer those caller-specific questions.

Be able to change someone's address. People move all the time, and with the current global crisis that's likely only to become more often not less. Since we're required to verify our identity on the call, allow the rep to override the address with the caller's data with a flag that the override was requested and approved by the person who corresponds with the SSN/taxpayer ID.

Allow mail forwarding for all documents. When I had to temporarily live out of my home with the craziness of abusive ex, I set up a PO Box. I had initially tried to set up a mail forward to the PO Box, then set up a mail hold for anything that didn't forward. Unfortunately, as a different problem, you cannot have both a mail hold and a forward in place. Since there's currently no way to forward certain documents, then people should be able to place a hold on anything that cannot forward. Let me show my photo ID to pick up my mail: license, passport - whatever. Even better, if you can verify my identity for fraud protection use the same level of protection for forwarding sensitive documents. "Regular mail forward" can just be requested, or "all mail forward" requires a photo ID and whatever to verify the requestor is the person who is supposed to be receiving the documents. Because honestly, what's the point of a mail forward that doesn't forward?

Anyway, that's my rant. Thank you for reading this far, and maybe if we defund the police we can use a subset of the funds to redesigning the process flows that are so horribly broken.

Header image: Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash