`IF you want to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning and file your [tax] return," says Johnell Hunter. "Go ahead!"
The Internal Revenue Service spokeswoman is quite serious. TELEFILE, a new IRS program being piloted in Ohio, enables taxpayers to dial an IRS computer on their phone.
At the prompting of a computer-generated voice, they punch in their wages and withholding taxes and are told instantly how much they owe or will be refunded. No long-winded calculations, no forms to fill out, and an IRS check is in the mail within two weeks (if it's a refund).
Still at a test stage, TELEFILE is restricted to taxpayers who are single, earn under $50,000, and would usually file a 1040EZ form.
Last year 126,000 people filed completely by phone. This year, 1.1 million 1040EZ packages for TELEFILE were sent out to Ohio residents. The level of response, however, will determine if the IRS expands the program nationwide.
Filing by computer, first introduced in 1986, is pulling in converts by the millions. Lured by the promise of quick refunds, more than 15 million taxpayers will likely file their federal tax returns electronically this year - cutting the usual eight to 10 week wait back to a mere two to three.
That's the projection of the IRS, which saw the number of electronic filers jump 44 percent between 1991 and 1992.
Electronic filing has its price. Tax preparers generally charge $20 to $40, although some agents offer free filing to old clients. The IRS has no control over the fee, it says, but requests agents not to charge by percentage of refund or type of return.
So why not skip the middle man and file from home? Two barriers stand in the way. The cost of the equipment - tax preparation software, special computer modems, and printers - would be prohibitive. And the IRS could not handle the millions of phone calls that would come in from all over the country at all times of day and night.
"We don't have enough telephone lines," Ms. Hunter says.
Instead, 48,000 IRS-approved tax preparers batch together their returns and each file once a day, often overnight to save costs.
Many tax preparers say resistance and confusion among clients about electronic filing is still common. Elizabeth Clarke, owner of Clearbrook Tax Service in Newton, Mass., says as many as 20 percent of her clients refuse to file electronically, "even after I've gone through my whole spiel."
Even with the added incentive of offering the service free, Ms. Clarke says clients have three main concerns that actually aren't so: A greater chance of being audited; having to pay their tax right away; not seeing a copy of the return.
A small number of filers will have to file on paper because the IRS won't accept certain forms electronically. Although Jackson Hewitt, an electronic tax service, predicts 100 million people will file via computer by the year 2000, the IRS is more circumspect and is shooting for 20 percent of filers or about 30 million.
The appeal for the IRS is savings in time and money. Computers obviate the need for handling piles of paper. No forms need typing and accuracy is assured, since tax preparers' software flags returns that don't add up.
When returns reach the IRS computer, the social security number and name are automatically checked against current data.
If they match completely, the return drops into the number-crunching system. If there is a discrepancy, it is then sent back to the tax preparer.
Once in the system, each return is screened against mathematical formula to determine if the things you claim on your tax return are commonly claimed by people of the same class.
For filers wanting to do more than fill out paper forms, but uncertain of electronic filing, there is the 1040 PC option. A relatively new package of IRS-approved software, it enables tax payers to fill out their own forms on computer, print them and then mail them off. This is as close as you get to filing from home. The benefit: only the lines you need are printed on the return, producing a shorter form than the usual 1040. And you can store your tax data on a disk.
But for Hunter, even working for the IRS has not given her the confidence to file electronically. "For years and years I've had a paper return," she says. "I'm not going to start with make-believe tax returns now."