IRS also taxes patience, schoolteacher learns

September 16, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

`TC Schoolteacher Jim Bauser thought that his call to Internal Revenue would be greeted with gratitude and enthusiasm. But he didn't understand the strange workings of the bureaucratic mind.

"In April I sent my return to IRS as I've dutifully done for the past 35 years," he recalls.

"On this form I claimed a refund of $750. About six weeks later, I got a letter from the great IRS computer in the sky stating that I had made a mistake in my calculations and I was really due a refund of $1,500, which would arrive by check shortly.

"I'm no genius, but I do have a degree in accounting and have teaching certificates in business and social studies, and I do know how to add and subtract and complete IRS Form 1040."

That's when Bauser phoned to tell the tax people not to send him $1,500 because he wasn't entitled to that big a refund.

"I called the toll-free number and explained that the error was not mine, but the IRS', and would they please recheck their numbers and not send me the incorrect amount.

"I thought they would be pleased with my honesty. But they assured me their computer stated that I was wrong, so their computer must be correct."

And before long, a check for $1,500 arrived.

"This made me determined to correct their error and get them to admit their mistake and take my money back whether they wanted to or not.

"Believe me, this wasn't easy. On three different days, I called the IRS office in Houston, where I live, and tried to explain the situation.

"I was transferred from department to department, cut off accidentally five times, and was actually hung up on once by a tax man who said: 'I don't know what they transferred you here for; I don't even know what you're talking about.' Click. Where do they get these people?

"On day four, I finally succeeded in finding a pleasant woman who was capable of calling my form up on her screen and tried to find the problem.

"We went through the form line by line, with her looking at the screen and me looking at my copy of the form.

"Finally, I discovered the problem. When my form was keyed into the computer, the operator had typed a dollar amount on one line and inadvertently typed the same number on the next line, instead of leaving it blank. That caused my refund to double.

"I pointed this out to the woman, but she told me that I had either placed the wrong number on the form, or I was reading it wrong. She was sure that it had to be my mistake because 'their computer is always right.'

"I couldn't believe my ears. She obviously had no idea what she was doing or what I was talking about. The computer had to be right even though it was obviously wrong.

"By then, I had wasted several hours of my time and was getting quite hacked. And I knew I had to get the money returned because eventually they would discover the error and charge me interest and penalties, plus repossessing my house and threatening to never allow me to see my grandchildren."

(That is an exaggeration. The IRS would surely allow him limited visitation with his grandchildren.)

"So I fired off a certified letter to the IRS, explaining the situation. I told them how they had made the error and how they could correct it.

"I gave them two weeks to reply and said I was sending copies of my letter to my senators, congressman and if it was the last thing I ever did, I would expose their lunacy.

"The Texas office replied that they were referring the problem to the Philadelphia office.

"Finally the Philadelphia office sent me a note stating that the problem had been resolved and if I would send in the portion of the refund not due me, there would be no penalties or interest assessed. Not even a little, 'We're sorry for the trouble,' or 'Thank you for being honest.'

"So I sent the money in.

"Anyway, I wanted you to know what happens when you try to do the people at IRS a favor."

Yes, but the IRS was also doing Bauser a favor. He teaches history. So now he can explain to his students why so many Americans have a nervous twitch.

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