Most everyone has an “IRS horror story” to tell, and mine isn’t so much centered on well-documented problems with the Internal Revenue Service but life itself nowadays.
The Bible is a sacred work that should not be tampered with, but if I were to make some revisions in the lessons it espouses to reflect modern times, there’s one I would include for sure:
Rather than pointing out that whoever lives by the sword shall die by the sword, I would change this to say “whoever lives by the computer shall die by the computer.”
So in recounting today’s tax story, I am not blaming the IRS or the sheer idea of taxation or any of the other standard whipping boys, but the fact we have put all our eggs into one basket with regard to a total dependence on computers. And some of those eggs get broken from time to time — smashed to bits, really.
My sad tale began happily on Feb. 7, when I completed my tax return, marched the envelope to the post office and watched it slide down the slot with a feeling of accomplishment. To be honest, I was drooling over the sizable refund it would bring more than anything.
In this era in which nearly everything is done electronically, I still like to send my tax returns the old-fashioned way and actually feel that check when it arrives in the mail in about six weeks.
This process has worked like a charm in recent years — all the more reason to think it would blow up in my face now.
Soon after mailing the return, I learned that sensitive tax information had been stolen from me and others. Without going into gory details, let me simply say it was one of those “institutional” situations involving a systemwide breach, similar to what has happened before with insurance companies, email providers and governmental databases.
This data leak has led to some people I know having their tax refunds stolen — probably by an overseas hacker — although the victims eventually can get their money, after the obligatory major ordeal.
I thought I was lucky, because upon consulting the Internal Revenue Service website and clicking on its “Where’s My Refund?” link, Tom Q. Taxpayer was able to determine that his return had arrived, but was “still being processed.”
I got that message repeatedly each time I checked, and the reason for this was soon clear when I went to the mailbox and found a letter from the IRS — never a good thing.
It stated that my return had been received, but due to the aforementioned breach, I would need to go to my “local” taxpayer assistance center to verify my identity and present a copy of the return, etc. The letter didn’t specify it, but I assumed I also would be asked for a blood sample and perhaps some DNA.
All this would be fine (if that’s what it took to get my money), but the problem is the nearest “local” taxpayer assistance center is in Winston-Salem and closes before 5 p.m. So I found myself faced with having to get off work and devote time and expense to driving to Winston to correct a problem that was not my fault.
When I called a toll-free taxpayer assistance line and whined about this hardship in the finest Sarah Bernhardt tradition, an extremely helpful man offered me an alternative — after I supplied to him my Social Security number, refund amount, mother’s maiden name, father’s name, etc.
I won’t be driving to Winston-Salem, but DO have to mail a packet to a special office in Texas containing a copy of my 2016 tax return and any supporting documents, a copy of my 2015 return with supporting documents, a letter explaining why I can’t go to Winston, my daytime contact number, etc.
Of course, this means I might not get my check for another nine weeks.
Now I realize the IRS is doing all this to make sure the money goes to its rightful owner, but it boils down to a huge hassle nonetheless.
This makes me think that while computers and all the information they contain often work against us with lightning precision, they can’t be counted on to help us to the same extent.
It seemed relatively simple for a scam artist to steal information electronically, and now the problem can’t be corrected using the same means — even if I can successfully regurgitate every little tidbit about myself to prove I’m me. The net result is being required to supply all these hard-copy documents, as if we’re still in the Stone Age, which involves a big effort and inconvenience.
And while we can always depend on law enforcement and agencies such as the IRS to crack down on us for every little problem, these societal institutions that are supposedly so powerful and all-knowing fail miserably when it comes to catching the hackers.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.