Depending on who you ask, Call EnQ is either a brilliant time-saving technology for hardworking tax professionals or it is a technology that is effectively mounting a denial of service attack on IRS customer service lines. It is either privatizing what many expect to be public resources or it is simply capitalism recognizing a need and providing something to meet it. In large part the answer depends on whether or not the person being asked is a Call EnQ subscriber.
Non-subscriber practitioners are questioning whether the service is even appropriate for taxpayer-funded lines. Chris Bourell, Clinic Director at the Low Income Tax Clinic at the University of Toledo College of Law, recently wrote to the Taxpayer Advocate about an issue faced at his clinic. The client was facing a Social Security garnishment that would cause undue financial hardship. The taxpayer had prepared the appropriate financial disclosure information and the clinic needed to contact IRS Collections to establish his financial condition and request a release of the proposed levy. The clinic tried to reach the IRS using both the automated collections line and the Practitioner Priority Line (PPL) “Over five consecutive working days in late August…a total of 18 times at various times during the days.” According to Chris, 16 of the 18 calls were not even placed in the hold queue. One call was placed on hold for 2 hours and 3 minutes before being transferred for technical difficulties. “After the transfer, the IRS informed us that we could not be added to a telephone queue. On the eighteenth call, the IRS estimated a hold time of 30-60 minutes.” They finally reached a collections representative after 2 hours and 8 minutes on hold. The experience is atypical only in that many practitioners, after being in a hold queue for an hour (or hours) receive what the IRS calls a “courtesy disconnect.”
A practitioner on Twitter recently mentioned that she had “no problem” reaching the PPL. She merely had to call eight times on various days and the eighth attempt she was allowed to request the IRS call back service. The call back service, based on anecdotal information and on personal experience, is hit-or-miss. When it is available or offered it works really well. Nevertheless, it is unclear under what circumstances call back service is offered. Practitioners seem to either luck into getting it—or not. Lucky practitioners get the call back option. The not so lucky get placed in the hold queue (for minutes or for hours). The truly unlucky wait on hold only to get disconnected or never get placed on hold at all but receive the automated message that “due to high call volume your call cannot be answered, please try again later.” Later. For eight or eighteen consecutive days. Sometimes multiple times per day.
Marc Dombrowski, Enrolled Agent Owner of Tax Help Associates, Inc., a Buffalo, New York area firm that specializes in representing taxpayers would probably benefit from Call EnQ, but he “doesn’t like the idea of it, just on principle.” Like Marc, many practitioners feel that Call EnQ violates the principles of fair play and fair access. For some it amounts to what former Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olsen described in her 2015 Annual Report to Congress a “pay-to-play” scheme. Chris noted in his letter to the IRS that “…these services have commodified access to government and limited that access to taxpayers with the means to pay.” While supporters have argued that call EnQ is only available to practitioners and only affects phone lines used by tax practitioners a quick review of Call EnQ’s home page reveals that this is not the case. The website lists the following phone numbers which are available to non-practitioners:
- IRS General Line
- ID Verification Line
- Individual and Business Collections Lines
Other more specialized lines are available under Call EnQ’s “pro” plan. These specialized lines are not reserved exclusively for tax practitioners and include the lines for Small Business Administration Loans and questions related to tax exempt organizations.
According to its website Call EnQ will cut hold times on these lines by as much as 90%. While the methods used to achieve these results are proprietary, at its most basic level Call EnQ uses banks of computerized auto-dialers to repeatedly call IRS customer service lines including the PPL, which is supposed to be used exclusively by tax practitioners actively working to resolve a client matter. The Call EnQ algorithm may also increase call frequency during known busy times. In any case, when a Call EnQ call gets placed into the IRS hold queue (no easy task right now, disconnects due to “high call volume” are the norm) Call EnQ assigns that place in line to the next subscriber in its own line.
Call EnQ’s supporters often mention that the PPL could also be considered a pay to play situation because only taxpayers who can afford representation have representatives with access to the PPL. Olivia Henley, Enrolled Agent owner of Number Queen, Ltd. in Sacramento California disagrees. She sees the PPL as a place where more experienced customer service representatives can answer calls from practitioners who at least in theory understand the issues about which they are calling. In other words, it’s an efficiency measure that funnels more complex questions to more experienced customer service representatives (again, in theory). Practitioners are allowed to resolve issues for up to five clients per answered call. Additionally, as Chris’ situation shows, the PPL is not exclusively reserved for practitioners with paying clients. It is available to any practitioner with proper authorization on file who is actively working a client’s case. This includes low income tax clinics across the country as well as CPAs, attorneys, and Enrolled Agents who are representing clients pro bono.
So what is the IRS doing about this? There may not be much they can do. Phyllis Jo Kubey, an Enrolled Agent in New York, New York, noted that her IRS Stakeholder Liaison (an IRS representative who works with practitioners in a specific geographical region to resolve systemic problems with the Service) indicated that IRS agents have been instructed to disconnect from calls that have clearly been placed by certain auto dialing services. The guidance is even provided in the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM 188.8.131.52.1). Unfortunately, the services in question don’t work the same way as Call EnQ. They dial and, once an IRS representative is reached, the service asks the IRS representative to wait to be connected to the real caller. Call EnQ simply ensures its subscribers get into (and get a good place in) the IRS hold queue. It’s not illegal and, while the IRS can chose to disconnnect calls they answer, they cannot stop people (or computers) from calling their phone lines. In the case of Call EnQ’s subscribers, by the time the IRS representative answers the call the subscriber is on the line because they have been in the hold queue waiting for a representative—just not nearly as long as non-subscribers. Again, for many practitioners and taxpayers the issue isn’t getting through to a representative, it is getting placed into the hold queue instead of being disconnected due to high call volume.
The fee for Call EnQ’s basic plan is $100 per month. In the bigger picture that may not seem like much. Many tax practitioners charge at least that much (often more) per hour for resolving a tax issue. Indeed, one of the main reasons practitioners use Call EnQ is because, well, time is money. Nevertheless, $1200 a year is a large expense for small and solo practitioners who only need to call the IRS a few times throughout the year to resolve basic client matters (then there’s the non-practitioner callers who are trying to resolve matters on their own). Some small practitioners with limited resources feel compelled to use Call EnQ because it’s the only way they can reach the IRS with a reasonable amount of time and effort. Nevertheless, those same practitioners insist that Call EnQ isn’t “part of the problem” because it doesn’t “tie up” IRS representatives. What it ties up, however, is telephone access. Frank Toothaker, Enrolled Agent, notes that “The more folks that sign up for this, the slower it becomes. It only works to the extent that there are non-paying callers that can be pushed to the end of the line.” Some supporters note that the IRS has been having a hard time answering its phones for years and argue that Call EnQ’s service is not much different than a firm having one or more staff members dial until someone gets through. This argument begs the question of when does automation scale to a level that becomes unconscionable. When a similar situation occurs and crashes a website it can be considered a denial of service attack.
Some practitioners insist that it is a lack of available representatives (or the repurposing of representatives) that is the real cause of the problem. Hiring more agents may or may not be the solution. Much as software programs will expand to fill all available memory, the Call EnQ system may simply expand to monopolize any additional bandwidth the IRS is able to add. For now no solution seems to be in sight. The IRS continues to issue automated notices that require some sort of response and, as bad as the phones are, mailing in a response is also an exercise in futility.