Troubles with IRS Private Debt Collection

Businessman sitting in office chair, covering his face with his handThe IRS listed 6 risks. The GAO found 10 more.

By CPA Trendlines

Here’s a curious situation: The Internal Revenue Service of the wealthiest nation on earth, with all its power to collect taxes – be it by withholding, by a polite letter of request, by slapping somebody’s assets with a lien, by knocking on a delinquent’s door – sometimes the IRS can’t afford to collect back taxes.

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When it can’t, it gives the power and privilege to a private debt collection (PDC) agency.

How well is that working out?

Not very.

A Minuscule Drip

The Government Accountability Office conducted a performance audit of the PDC program and issued a report in March of this year. The report was neither scathing nor exonerating. It found problems and potentials.

Among the report’s findings:

• The amounts of collected debt that actually reach the U.S. Treasury are pretty piddling. Last year, as of September, of the $197 billion of 2017 tax debt, only $51 million arrived in the national coffer – a minuscule drop in a $4 trillion bucket.
• The PDC program comes with a variety of inherent risks, such as scams and suicide, and according to the Government Accountability Office, the IRS isn’t doing enough to mitigate those risks.
• The IRS has not been forthcoming regarding what it does with the collected debt, and it hasn’t been doing enough to measure and assess the effectiveness of the program.

The Collection

To be fair, the IRS did not ask PDC agencies to collect the entire $197 billion tax debt. The Service figured it could collect 26 percent itself, some $52 billion. Of the remainder, $5.7 billion in 730,000 cases was deemed eligible for PDC agencies. Those agencies managed to wrest only $88.8 million – 1.6 percent – from the indebted taxpayers. The cost to the government in commissions and other costs: $67 million.

Is it worth the trouble? If the issue were as simple as the color of the bottom line, a few million dollars is better than nothing. But the issue isn’t simple. PDC generates risks to taxpayers, risks that may outweigh the benefits of slightly higher revenues.

Lax on Risk

The GAO praised some of the IRS’s efforts to mitigate risk to taxpayers, but it says that the Service has identified fewer than half the risks that the PDC program entails.

The IRS identified six risks:

• Unauthorized disclosure of taxpayer data
• Taxpayer personally identifiable information (i.e., data not protected by collection agencies)
• Collection agency violations of taxpayer rights
• Taxpayers unnecessarily burdened by collection agencies if the IRS does not have a process to recall cases referred to the Taxpayer Advocate Service
• Taxpayers targeted by scammers
• Delays related to background investigations of agency employees

The GAO identified 10 additional risks:

• Taxpayers agree to debt payments they cannot afford
• Risks of suicide or harm to others when taxpayers are contacted by collection agencies
• Risk taxpayers treated differently by collection agencies versus IRS because of financial incentives
• Collection agencies may contact and burden taxpayers who meet exclusion criteria
• Collection agencies’ operational and quality control plans may not meet IRS requirements
• Disparate taxpayer treatment based on age, race, gender, religion, etc.
• Collection agency threats of IRS enforcement action
• Risk of specific taxpayer rights violations, e.g., abuse, harassment, etc.
• Fraud risk internal to the PDC program
• Risks to groups such as older Americans, limited English proficiency, mental health conditions, etc.

The Fate of the Debt

The GAO noted a little problem with the destination of the collected debt. Of the $88.8 million collected from the launch of the program in 2016 through September 2018, the IRS was less than forthcoming about only $50.9 million going to the general fund of the U.S. Treasury. The other $37.8 million went to IRS funds to pay current and future costs related to the PDC.

Of the $18.9 million that went to current costs, which included commissions to PDC agencies, $2.9 million remained in the account in September 2018.

Of the $18.9 million held for future costs, $14.6 million remained. Much of that would be spent to hire 100 additional staff in October of 2018.

The IRS said that future reports would include a program balance and retained fund balance tables. They would not, however, include a table on the amount that actually goes to the Treasury.

Why not? Because it isn’t required.

The GAO noted that better reporting, required or not, would enable better decisions by stakeholders, such as Congress.

PDC in the Past

The IRS has tried PDC in the past. Congress gave it the authority to do so in 1995, but in 1997, with the cost-effectiveness of truly federal proportions, the program cost $21.1 million to collect $3.1 million. Not a good deal, so the program was canceled. In 2004, the IRS tried again. By 2009, it was apparent that the IRS could collect back taxes more cost-effectively than private companies.

In 2015, Congress authorized the IRS to try again.

The latest effort is being unrolled in three phases.

The first, initiated in 2017, covered the simplest cases – taxpayers who had agreed that they owed taxes.

A year later, the second phase went after taxpayers whose debt had been uncovered by audits and similar IRS efforts.

The third phase, launched in March 2019, is going after business tax debt.

By the end of 2019, 2.4 million cases will have been eligible for the PDC program.

Though PDC was launched in April 2017, it wasn’t until June 2018 that officials started drafting the program’s mission, vision, values statements and associated metrics. The three main objectives of the program were defined as:

1. Apply tax laws in a manner consistent with IRS practices. This would be measured by the average quality score and the number of actionable complaints and unauthorized disclosures.
2. Provide taxpayers the opportunity to understand and resolve their obligations. This would be measured by an average taxpayer satisfaction score.
3. Resolve obligations through PDC agencies. This would be measured by the number of cases resolved and dollars collected.

One thing the IRS has not done, the GAO says, is to analyze the results of PDC cases. Which kinds of cases are most likely and least likely to result in a collection? Can a given taxpayer afford to pay the debt?

What are the indicators of impossibility? Which should the IRS itself pursue? At what point should a case be written off as uncollectable?

The GAO report says, “By not analyzing the results of PDC cases, the IRS risks continuing to send cases to collection agencies that collect little or no revenue and incur costs that waste federal resources as well as burden taxpayers ... Similarly, by not analyzing new types of cases that could be assigned to private collection agencies, the IRS could miss opportunities to assign cases that collect more revenue than cases that those agencies currently return with little or no revenue.”

The GAO concluded that the PDC program can contribute to the IRS’s enforcement efforts to ensure compliance. But the GAO also said that the program needs more clearly defined objectives and measures and targets that are clearly linked to those objectives.

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