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IRS stokes frustrations over refund delays by pushing online solutions it knows don’t work

With taxpayers up against a major processing backlog, the IRS keeps suggesting the same-old information sources, despite their well-documented limitations.

IRS stokes frustrations over refund delays by pushing online solutions it knows don’t work
[Source Images: Tim Robberts/Getty]

A processing backlog at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) continues to leave countless taxpayers in the dark about the state of their tax refunds. With many turning to the agency for help, the IRS this week fanned the flames of their frustration by recommending the same-old solutions—despite knowing those solutions to be of limited use for taxpayers facing delays. 

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“Ordering a tax transcript is NOT a secret way to get a refund date,” the agency said in a tweet on Thursday. “Use the #IRS online tool ‘Where’s My Refund?’ instead.” 

The problem is, that online tool doesn’t show a refund date for unprocessed returns, nor does it even tell users what might be holding them up. Rather, it tends to surface very generic and unhelpful messages like, “Your return processing has been delayed beyond the normal timeframe.” Of course, anyone who is waiting for a refund check to arrive in their bank account would already know that. 

In fact, the IRS itself has acknowledged that the Where’s My Refund? tool is often useless. In its annual report to Congress last year, the National Taxpayer Advocate—an office within the agency that acts as a kind of consumer watchdog—said “many taxpayers checking the tool could not secure specific information as to when they would receive their refund, and just as importantly, what is causing the delay.” It recommended an upgrade, but that would require resources that the agency may not have. 

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With few options for up-to-date information, many taxpayers in online forums have discovered that they can sometimes get a direct-deposit date for their refund by viewing their tax transcripts at the right time. On Thursday, for example, many users in a Facebook group dedicated to tax refunds rejoiced at seeing the date March 9 on their newly updated transcripts, which indicates that a deposit is forthcoming.

The IRS would seem to prefer that taxpayers not use transcripts for this purpose, although it has been somewhat cryptic about why. An FAQ page on the topic merely states that transcripts are “best and most often used to validate past income and tax filing status for mortgage, student, and small business loan applications, and to help with tax preparation.”

Either way, it’s easy to see why this week’s tweet by the IRS provoked such a negative response from users who have not had luck getting information about their refunds through the recommended channels. “This is a joke right?” one user posted.

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It should be noted that this snafu is not necessarily the fault of the IRS social media team. The agency is not supposed to engage with individual consumers about tax issues on social media, and so whoever manages its accounts are rather hamstrung in terms of being able to communicate in any meaningful way.

As of the end of last year, the IRS was facing a backlog of some 6 million unprocessed returns, and that was before the current tax season even began. Lawmakers in Congress have been at loggerheads over how to combat the problem, with Democrats saying the agency clearly needs more funding and some Republicans suggesting the IRS staff just needs to be forced back to the office.

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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