written by Ian Hall

IRS cybersecurityThe 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 was able to intercept thousands of bogus returns and prevent the issuance of fraudulent refunds.

Cybersecurity
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 but cybercriminals did breach its Get Transcript App in 2015 and other applications are under constant probing and attack by cybercriminals.

Koskinen assured Congress the agency is growing its cybersecurity teams with more agents and training. The IRS has hired 55 new cybersecurity experts. However, he acknowledged 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 the drawn-out government hiring process is a deterrent to hiring cybersecurity professionals and urged Congress to reinstate the agency’s fast-track hiring process.

Identity Theft
One of the greatest issues cybersecurity and the IRS experiences is tax-related identity theft. According to a government watchdog, the breach of the Get Transcript App in 2015 resulted in $50 million in fraudulent refunds paid to cybercriminals. Due to the filing season having just ended, final statistics will not be released until later this year.

However, interim statistics give a snapshot of the immensity of the issue of tax-related identity theft. Since March 5, 2016, the IRS had successfully prevented the issuance of some $180 million in fraudulent refunds. To combat tax-related identity theft, the IRS has enhanced its return processing filters. Most of the enhancements are invisible to the taxpayer.

Customer Service
The IRS’s level of customer service hit historic lows during the 2015 filings season. Nearly two-thirds of all calls to the IRS went unanswered and the agency disconnected millions of callers for so-called “courtesy disconnects.” There were long lines, in some cases a few city blocks in length, for in-person support at IRS service centers nationwide. The blame for this, as attributed by the IRS, can be placed on budget cuts and the inability to hire more operators.

As of December 2015, Congress gave the IRS an additional $290 million and instructed the agency to use the money to improve customer service, along with advancing 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. With this increase in funding, the agency’s level of customer service reached as high as 65 percent during the filing season.

However, that level will drop to around 50 percent for all of 2016, Koskinen said. These additional employees hired were hired for the filing season, and were relieved of their duties post-filing season. The IRS estimates to receive some 150.6 million returns during the filing season. That number includes an estimated 13.5 million returns on extension until October 17, 2016.