A Taxpayer's Tale
On May 26, 1999, my wife and I received a notice from the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Division, which greeted us thus: "We changed your return -- You have an amount due. You owe $56.09." I scanned the letter closely for a simple "hello" or "drop dead," but I could find none. I assumed that the letter's abrupt tone was rooted not in rudeness, but rather, in the Treasury Department's desire to show taxpayers that they meant business. What the I.R.S. apparently did not understand, however, was that in matters regarding my personal finances, I too mean business.I carefully perused the three-page, single-spaced missive, and after wading through a labyrinthine section on "Penalties and Interest" that only an accountant might fully grasp, I found a paragraph that "explained" why our tax return was changed. "We did not allow your personal exemption. Your social security number does not match the records the Social Security Administration provided to us." Paydirt. That elusive, practically mythic set of circumstances taxpayers dream about had come to pass; I was right, and the I.R.S. was wrong. Say amen, somebody! It required all of 20 seconds to prepare my "case," which is simply this: Yes, my wife's social security number does match the name on our tax return, and even if that were somehow incorrect, it is the name used on eight previous tax returns for which there were no changes or errors. I began to consider various ways to present my defense, and I decided to adopt a tone similar to that of the letter I was reading -- the tone that the I.R.S. apparently deems appropriate for conducting such business. Vituperation, contentiousness, and a combative spirit, therefore, would be the order of the day, and I practically trembled in anticipation of a small taxpayer victory. I was not disappointed, but I learned three things. The I.R.S. workforce is comprised of by-the-book office mannequins, my capacity for cruelty toward such types is unlimited, and abusing these employees is downright exhilarating. The following is a transcript of two days of conversations with various I.R.S. employees. Names (except my own) and employee numbers have been changed. (My "conversation" begins with a recorded message and options for touch-tone entry of a dozen numbers including social security number and zip code, then classical music for two minutes, then "We appreciate your patience. Please hold for the next available representative." Then 17 more minutes of "Vienna Waltz" and "Eine Kleine Nachtmusic." Finally a live voice.)I.R.S.: This is Roger Drone, 184544, how may I assist you?Pelfrey: You guys screwed up my tax return and now I'm about $500 in the hole. Who do I talk to?I.R.S.: Did you receive a letter from us?Pelfrey: You mean you don't know? I have reached the I.R.S., have I not?I.R.S.: The letters are generated in another department, sir.Pelfrey: Great. Connect me with that department please.I.R.S.: I assure you we can resolve this here, sir. Are you disputing the information in the letter?Pelfrey: No, I called to say that I agree wholeheartedly, and to give you guys an "atta boy." I guess I have a soft spot for civil servants.I.R.S.: If you can just be patient with us, sir, we can resolve your issue more quickly.Pelfrey: I am being patient, haven't you heard? The nice lady playing the classical music even thanked me for being patient. In fact, she thanked me 21 times. I.R.S.: May I have your name?Pelfrey: I entered that information . . . my social security number and zip code . . . with the keypad about 20 minutes ago. Don't you have me on your screen already?I.R.S.: That's for electronic handling. When you get transferred to a representative, we have to start again.Pelfrey: Margaret H. and David L. Pelfrey.I.R.S.: Is this a joint return?Pelfrey: Well, let's see. I pressed the number for joint returns and I got your department. I gave you two names. Now our names are on your computer screen, so why don't you tell me if this was a joint return.I.R.S.: Mr. Pelfrey, my screen does not have all the information about your return, that's why I asked if . . .Pelfrey: That still leaves you with two clues.I.R.S.: So this is a joint return, then?Pelfrey: Got it in one try. You're good. Does your supervisor know how smart you are?I.R.S.: Mr. Pelfrey, would you like to speak to another representative?Pelfrey: I want to speak with someone who can make things happen. Actually anyone who knows what's going on will be fine.I.R.S.: Please hold.(Nine minutes of classical music, many thank yous, and the next representative) I.R.S.: This is Ms. Samesong, 188004. How can I assist you?Pelfrey: Just to keep it friendly, may I call you double 04?I.R.S.: Sir?(I give my name and tell her the whole long story thus far.)I.R.S.: What is the Social Security number for Margaret?Pelfrey: Well, actually that's the problem. She was not allowed her personal exemption because you guys couldn't match the name with the number. Now instead of sending our refund, which was just over $450, your department claims that we owe $60. It's my position, basically, that your altering my return is wrong in principle, but since it puts me $510 in the red, it also hurts my feelings.I.R.S.: Which one was wrong on the 1998 return, the name or the number?Pelfrey: Both were correct, 004. It's just that you guys can't find a matching record with the Social Security Administration. But let's stop a moment and think about the question you just asked me. My wife knows how to spell her name, and jotting down a nine-digit number is a piece of cake, as is checking our return for errors before we send it to you guys. So if something is still wrong with either portion of that information, we could not possibly know which one, now could we?I.R.S.: It may be that the name on her social security card is different from the name on your 1998 return. We can't issue an exemption for a name that does not match, Mr. Pelfrey.Pelfrey: That's rather odd, because it's the name she has used for every return we have filed since we got married in 1990. There were no matching problems for eight years running, but as you know, we had an amount due for each of those years. Now that you guys owe us a refund, the names and numbers don't match up. I find that curious, to say the least.I.R.S.: Mr. Pelfrey, we treat every return the same way. I understand your frustration, Mr. Pelfrey. No one is delaying the refund and no one wants to. We understand that many taxpayers have those concerns, but we deal with each case fairly and . . .Pelfrey: Are you still talking to me?I.R.S.: I beg your pardon?Pelfrey: I asked if you were still addressing me.I.R.S.: Yes, sir, I'm speaking to you. I was explaining that we treat each case fairly . . .Pelfrey: It sounded like you were reading. Anyway, let me briefly interrupt your lecture to suggest that the 106th Congress of the United States has a different opinion of your operations. There have been all sorts of hearings and reforms, and you guys have taken a beating this last year. There must have been a memo sent around the office about all that. Did it not reach your little cubicle?I.R.S.: May I transfer you to another department, Mr. Pelfrey?Pelfrey: You may transfer me to another person, but I don't want to hear any more Mozart. I had rather not get put on hold until we have another live bureaucrat on the line. I have your name and employee number written down, so don't f**k me.I.R.S.: Please hold.(Four minutes of Beethoven and then another representative. I bring him up to speed.)I.R.S.: Are David L. and Margaret H. the names you used on the return, on the actual sheet?Pelfrey: Those are our pet names. Our real names are Serge and Isadora. We thought that would make for fewer spelling errors.I.R.S.: Mr. Pelfrey, I can't help you if you take this attitude.Pelfrey: Then try this attitude: When we owe the I.R.S. any amount of money, you like our names and numbers just fine. Everything's a match. But when The I.R.S. owes us, we're the ugly girl at the dance. What's wrong, ain't we pals no more?I.R.S.: Sir?Pelfrey: I said, Ain't We Pals No More?I.R.S.: I just can't see why you want to have this attitude, Mr. Pelfrey. We can . . .Pelfrey: Hang on a second. The lady with the music keeps saying she appreciates me, and number 004 said that she understood my frustration. Now you're saying that you don't understand. Somebody is lying. Either the Treasury Department understands my feelings or they do not. Connect me with someone who will come clean on this.I.R.S.: Mr. Pelfrey, I realize it is easy to make a joke at our expense. We . . .Pelfrey: It gets easier by the minute. Will you please connect me with someone who is not a joke.I.R.S.: Please hold.(Strauss again with the waltzes -- but then it figures that the music rotation at the I.R.S. would be so pedestrian. No way am I going to hear Satie or Britten. Then, can you believe it, another representative.)I.R.S.: Ms. Dreadwork, 144604. I understand you have an unmatched social security number.Pelfrey: No, you have an unmatched social security number, it just happens to belong to my wife. It works rather well on our end. It just doesn't match on your side because we had a refund this year.I.R.S.: That's not the situation, Mr. Pelfrey. In previous years we processed returns without checking every match, and so returns that are in error, that is, regarding matching information like social security numbers, were not frozen or changed. Now we freeze returns with names that don't match, or in your wife's case, we allow no personal exemption. We verify those exemptions by matching our records with those at the Social Security Administration.Pelfrey: In other words, if she does not exist, so to speak, there can be no exemption taken from the grand total of our taxable income.I.R.S.: Exemptions must be verified through our records. That's correct.Pelfrey: Then why was a letter sent to a nonexistent person? That's her name on the envelope, after all. In fact, if she doesn't exist, by whom was all this taxable income generated?I.R.S.: The letter is sent to the address on the return, Mr Pelfrey.Pelfrey: I used to do collections at a company I once worked for, and I can tell you from experience that it's tough to collect money from a person who doesn't exist. Damn near impossible, actually.I.R.S.: Look, Mr. Pelfrey, the procedure is like this. We are required to process your return once we receive it. If a personal exemption can't be used, it is treated as a math error and we change the return accordingly. It's the new law.Pelfrey: That's one hell of a math error, don't you think? I say there are two wage earners in this house and you claim there is only one. But therein lies the arrogance of your "procedure." The obvious move would be to check our return from last year. After all, that's how I made certain that everything was okay, and since we are both working off of the same page, a letter or phone call could resolve the matter before taking the time and tax dollars to rework my entire tax return. I am stunned that you would proceed harum scarum and adjust my return over such a minor clerical discrepancy. You do this apparently without considering the huge number of taxpayers who will have to go through the same ordeal I am struggling with.I.R.S.: I don't know how many cases we have like yours. I haven't seen many.Pelfrey: Pardon me, but that has the distinct tone of bullshit. Your number 4 option on the touch tone selection is precisely designated for cases of unmatched social security numbers. That means that it must be, at the very least, among the top four reasons for contacting the I.R.S. regarding changes in returns. Otherwise how could it logically be a preselected option? If you are going to bullshit me, at least do your homework first, otherwise just keep reading from the page and we'll get along famously. It's obvious you guys don't work well off the top of your heads, so if you ad lib somebody's going to get all up in your ass sideways.I.R.S.: Sir, I merely meant that in my department we have not specifically . . .Pelfrey: Tell your story walking, lady. The I.R.S. changed my return because of a bureaucratic oversight and now you are defending the procedure. There's nothing else to say. I.R.S.: I'm just doing my job, sir.Pelfrey: You, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolph Hess, and too many German officers to name.I.R.S.: I'll transfer your case to our . . . (I could not understand every word at this point, her voice was shaking so, but apparently I was being given to Mr. Big). Please hold.(Thirty seconds of Wagner -- how appropriate -- then a voice claiming that Mr. Big would contact me within 24 hours. The time is 5:18 p.m. CDT. May 27. At 5:24 p.m. the next day, I call the I.R.S. 800 number. Nine minutes of Bach and then a real voice.)I.R.S.: John Curtmanner, 122108. Are you calling about a matter regarding your own tax return?Pelfrey: Well I wouldn't spend two hours with office drones just to rat out my neighbor. Yes, for God's sake, this concerns my return. (I repeat the whole story to a fellow who offers a clipped "I see" to each point I make.)I.R.S.: You will need to get form 10x and then you need to contact the Social Security Administration. You need to forward . . .Pelfrey: Stop right there. There's only one party who needs to do anything, and here's how that works. You need to decide what will happen if I drop this whole matter right now. You need to think about what will happen if I ignore this preposterous letter and allow that $60.00 to show up in September as delinquent. Then the Treasury Department will certainly proceed with prosecution for tax evasion or whatever you are calling it this week. Then it comes out, ultimately, in every newspaper and media outlet I can reach, that you guys were wrong after all, and that a taxpayer with an excellent record is being wrongfully prosecuted for 60 f**king dollars. Then you need to consider how many congressmen and senators are salivating for just one more reason to hammer the I.R.S. Then you need to consider also that I have recorded all my conversations with the I.R.S. Even if the whole matter gets resolved with a handshake, two guesses who will wind up looking like the jackasses they truly are. The ball is in your court, 122108.I.R.S.: Please hold.(At this point, I engage in a brilliant ploy for which I would love to take credit, but its origin is in my wife's genius. It is a technique she calls "gas lighting," the idea being to give the person at the top an entirely different impression than that given to everyone else. When everyone confers later about "that jerk Pelfrey," the boss will wonder if the workers' social/professional communication skills might need some retouching. I adjust my demeanor accordingly while I wait. Music, then a very pleasant female voice with a Spanish accent.) I.R.S.: Ms. Gonzalez 165300. May I help you?Pelfrey: Hola. Did your colleague brief you about my situation?I.R.S.: (laughing) Hola. Yes, sir, he did. Pelfrey: (in my friendliest tone) Quisiero the money you guys owe me then, por favor.I.R.S.:(still laughing) I'm reviewing the problem on my screen now to see if we can make a change.Pelfrey: I'm sorry to tie you up with this, but I kept getting transferred to other representatives. Everyone's been extremely attentive and helpful, but my situation seems to be one of those weird technicalities no one can figure out. I hate to be a pain over little matters like this.I.R.S.: That's not a problem, Mr. Pelfrey. You may want to clear up this issue with the SSA before next year, but we can change the return for now.Pelfrey: That's a relief. I believe Mr. Curtmanner genuinely wanted to do the same, but he seemed nervous -- I'm only saying this because I worked in management for years and I understand how miscommunications come about -- and he was somewhat bogged down in technical procedures and rules. He sounded sympathetic, but I'm not sure he's totally comfortable with making decisions or that he is completely familiar with the material. I hope I did not upset him. Your other workers are very pleasant but I think they are overwhelmed but the vast amount of knowledge they must keep track of, so I certainly sympathize with them.I.R.S.: Thank you for your input and patience, Mr. Pelfrey.Pelfrey: It's my pleasure, Ms. Gonzalez, like I said, I've been there. In any event, are you processing my refund check?I.R.S.: I don't mail checks, Mr. Pelfrey, but I will change your tax return to the original refund status. It may be four weeks before you receive a check.Pelfrey: Gracias. Buenos dias.I.R.S.: Buenos dias.Epilogue:Employee 165300 was as good as her word. Four weeks to the day after our conversation, I returned from a vacation trip to discover in my mailbox a U.S. Treasury check for the the full amount of my original refund. Is this a great country or what?