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Tax Agencies Offer Advice Over the Phone

So you’re in the middle of filing your tax return, and you’re confused. Both the Internal Revenue Service and California’s Franchise Tax Board offer toll-free numbers to answer taxpayer questions.

If you have a touch-tone phone and your questions are relatively basic, government officials suggest you dial (800) TAX-4477 for the IRS, or (800) 338-0505 if it’s a question about your California tax return.

With the touch of a few buttons, these numbers give you computerized recordings that answer basic questions regarding deductions, dependents and other commonly asked queries. They are less likely to be busy than the lines answered by human IRS and FTB agents, according to sources at both agencies.

If you don’t have a touch-tone phone--or your question simply requires a human operator--the IRS can be reached at (800) TAX-1040 and the Franchise Tax Board at (800) 852-5711.

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The IRS says its “peak” call-in times are on Mondays and Fridays. You’re less likely to get a busy signal on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, said Jan Gribbon, an IRS spokeswoman in Los Angeles. Currently, the manned hot line is available between the 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., but the hours are frequently extended closer to April 15.

The Franchise Tax Board’s toll-free line is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and those calling before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. are much more likely to get through, said FTB spokesman Jim Reber.

If you need tax forms or publications, call the IRS at (800) TAX-FORM and the state at (800) 338-0505.

Meanwhile, there is good news on the accuracy front. Back in 1986, the General Accounting Office studied the answers given by IRS hot line operators and found they were only right 62.8% of the time. The following year, thanks to additional training and monitoring techniques, accuracy rose to 79.8% overall, the IRS says.

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This year, the agency is starting a pilot program to further boost accuracy. The program, which uses computerized prompts to get agents to ask necessary questions and arrive at the proper answer, was previously tested in Boston, where accuracy rose to almost 88%.


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