The Churn of the Screw Redux

(Greetings to those of you who were not expecting me to be here today. You do not have the wrong Saturday (can there ever be a wrong Saturday?). Mark Alpert has moved on to other things and will be devoting his talented wordcraft to his adult and young adult novels, which we ask that you continue to seek out, purchase, and read. In the meanwhile, I will be filling in for the foreseeable future (this week, anyway) as well as posting on my usual spot on alternate Saturdays. Onward! Joe H.)

Some of you may recall that last year I had a close encounter with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). I wrote about my experience in a post for TKZ titled The Churn of the Screw. I had another interaction recently for a different reason. and will share the additional knowledge that I gained. I feel that it is pertinent for this space since, if you are writing for income and actually earn a bit, you can expect a little extra attention from the IRS as does anyone who is engaged in self-employment. 

My latest experience began with the receipt of a letter from the IRS on a Saturday. There apparently was some issue that required me to prove who I am. I was instructed to call an 800 number between 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM (PST) even though Daylight Savings Time was still in effect for another couple of weeks. The author of the letter also apparently took it for granted that I would know that those hours obtained only from Monday through Friday. Just for grins and giggles I called it anyway — on Saturday — and was told via voice recording that the office was closed. Fair enough. 

I called back on Monday, at 7:00 AM (EDT) just to see if the PST the letter mentioned was in error. It was. I got a recording instructing me to hold. My call was ultimately answered after thirty or so minutes by a somewhat abrupt lady who exhibited some umbrage with me because I asked her to repeat her name and ID Number twice. I wanted to ask her to get the gumbo out of her mouth and slow down but I did not. I instead told her that I was a bit hard of hearing and was having difficulty understanding her. 

Taxpayer Tip #1: An IRS representative is required to give you their name and ID Number. Write it down. If you don’t understand it, whether because of the line quality, hearing issues, or other problems, ask politely to have the information repeated, even if it irritates the representative. It will also slow the rhythm of the conversation down a bit in the event that the representative is inclined to pepper you with quick questions or otherwise rush you through things.

I then advised the representative that I received a letter and gave her the letter’s form number. She told me that the database for that information did not open until 8:30 AM and to call back then. She then hung up. I tried to call back throughout the day but after a two-minute greeting and instructions to “Press 1”  was told each time that due to high call volumes all representatives were busy and that I should call back. Click. I did connect at one point mid-afternoon but after being on hold for an hour and ten minutes I was disconnected. Click. 

Taxpayer Tip #2: Don’t call the IRS or any government office on a Monday. I should have remembered this from prior experience. Call traffic dies down considerably on Tuesday and Wednesday before rising on Thursday and Friday but it is worst on Monday. I don’t know if the information I received about the database not being available until 8:30 AM was an outlier, a common Monday occurrence, or a rib. Not calling on Mondays makes that question unimportant, at least on a Monday.

I called back on Tuesday at 7:00 AM. My call was answered after a forty-five-minute wait by a very patient, polite, and pleasant gentleman. Apparently, the system being down until 8:30 AM was an outlier. Or something else. The representative, pleasant as he was, was having some sort of difficulty with the system which required him to put me on hold two times. We got disconnected during the second hold. 

Taxpayer Tip #3: Most phones have a speaker system. If yours does, use it. Turn it way up so that you can put the phone down and write, read, go to the restroom, or prepare meals for the week while you are waiting on hold.

Taxpayer Tip #4: If you have a landline, use that line to call IRS instead of your cell phone. You don’t want to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by a dropped call. Oh, and if someone wants to put you on hold, ask for a direct dial number for them in case you are disconnected. I did that but was told no direct number was available. 

Taxpayer Tip #5: Write and recite your own mantra of thanksgiving while you are waiting or when your call gets disconnected. Mine was:

“Be happy. I am in a nice room in a nice warm and dry house which contains coffee and food which I can sit and consume while wearing comfortable clothes. All else does not matter. Maybe, however, I should have bought that family pack of Chocolate Oreos.”

It took me a couple of tries but I did get back on the waitlist (as opposed to being told to call back later due to high call volume). My call was eventually answered by an absolutely delightful (that is Joespeak for “…and she laughed at my jokes”) young woman. It took about fifteen minutes to establish that I was and am me to the satisfaction of the IRS. She thanked me a couple of times for being prepared and having the documents requested in front of me.

Taxpayer Tip #6: Be prepared. Most letters from the IRS will contain a list of documents to have at hand when you call. Do so. It makes life easier. 

I thanked the representative at the close of the call and told her that I was going to write to my Congressman and tell him 1) what a pleasant experience I had working with her that morning and 2) that whatever the Representative — whose name and ID Number I had dutifully written down — was being paid, it wasn’t enough. 

I then did just that. 

Taxpayer Tip #7: Give credit where due, when due. The IRS representative was up at 7:00 AM and was pleasant while doing her job competently. Most government employees are like sorcerers’ apprentices in terms of workload. They deal with lots of angry brooms all day long. If a tip of the fedora is warranted I like to give it out. It makes me happy to do so and hopefully makes the recipient feel appreciated. Who knows. It might even get them a small cash award or even a step increase. 

That’s me for today. I hope that you never get a letter from a government agency. If you do, and even one of the above tips is helpful, that will make my day. 

If you have any bureaucratic stories that you wish to share (and everything these days, from banks to internet service providers, is a bureaucracy) please do so. If not, we’re still happy to have you. Thank you for being here.

This entry was posted in #writers, #writerslife by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

33 thoughts on “The Churn of the Screw Redux

  1. I seem to recall we got an email to that effect, contacted our tax guy to see if it was legit, and took care of it on line quickly. But not nearly as interesting as your adventure.

  2. It’s so nice to “see” you this Saturday morning, Joe!

    My father-in-law works for the IRS. Not sure if I mentioned this last time (memory’s always the first thing to go 😉 ). He’s one of the sweetest men I know, present company excluded, yet at work he’s a pitbull. The poor guy’s had his brand new Caddy keyed twice, received numerous death threats from unhappy taxpayers, and had to carry a firearm to work to feel safe. At 84 years old, we keep telling him to retire, but he loves his job (audits!). This year he transitioned to work from home, which makes us all sleep a little better at night.

    I tell us you this story as a long, roundabout way to thank you for going the extra mile for the IRS girl who laughed at your jokes. You’re a classy gentleman, Joe, and I’m honored to know you.

    • Sue, you did indeed tell us about your exception father-in-law and I loved reading about him again. I am sure that work keeps him young and well.

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Sue. You have made a man who is much closer to your father-in-law’s age than your own blush deeply. Your job is done!

  3. I appreciate the IRS advice. Your experience increases my hopes to avoid any direct exchange.
    Very pleased that I get to hear more from you. Your posts are alway excellent!
    Thank You –
    Tom Combs (fellow big-time admirer of James Lee Burke)

    • Tom! It’s so nice to hear from you. Thank you!

      I hope that you enjoyed A Private Cathedral. I hate to think that it might be JLB’s last David Robicheaux book (or last book, period) but if so, what a backlist he has to rest upon. If you haven’t read A Private Cathedral as yet, I envy you the fresh experience. Thanks again.

  4. Good morning, Joe. What a pleasant surprise to hear from you today. I hope you will continue to post every Saturday.

    I forgot the post from last year (I went back and read it) until I saw the photo of the wonderful medical snake, the colonoscope. Then I remembered.

    My favorite IRS story: Being self-employed, I have always had an accountant and tax preparer, a former IRS agent. In the early 1980’s, I was informed that my taxes were being reviewed and I was summoned to the inquisition (or as you showed with your picture, the probing). My tax preparer told me to stay home. He picked up a huge box of documents from my office and prepared to do battle. It seems that the IRS didn’t believe how much alimony I was paying my former wife. When Ernie, my tax man, got done with the IRS, I didn’t owe them a thing. In fact, the IRS owed me money.

    Years later, when Ernie was on his death bed with lung cancer, I sent him a note of appreciation for his years of service, and reminded him of his encounter with the IRS. After Ernie passed, his wife sent me a note and told me that note was Ernie’s favorite letter.

    Thanks for your post and advice today. Have a great weekend.

    • Good morning, Steve! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting so generously. Your story about your tax preparer was poignant. Those of us in the “helping” fields — and that includes you, front and center — usually only hear about how things went when someone is unhappy. We kind of gauge how we’ll we’re doing by the lack of (negative) response. A note such as you sent brightens a day immeasurably. It was also nice of Ernie’s wife to cut through her own pain and loss to let you know how much your note meant to him. Thanks for sharing and have a great day.

  5. Joe, you reminded me that I really should return the call that keeps going to my voicemail. An authoritative computer voice claiming to be from the IRS warns me of financial ruin, prison, and the forfeiture of the souls of my grandchildren if I don’t call them back. Gotta put that on my to-do list, along with getting in touch with that Nigerian prince.

  6. Just reading about the experience makes me want to grind teeth! LOL! Glad you finally got someone agreeable to talk to and get matters handled. Good customer service should never go out of style, no matter what business or entity it is.

    • Agreed, BK. It’s why I make sure to note it when I get it. Maybe I’ll do note a few of the good ones in a future post, but only if I can figure out a way to tie it into something helpful for writers.

      Actually, I just did….

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. And it’s always good to remember that the IRS won’t call you cold. If “they” do, it’s most likely a scam.

    I’ve dealt with the IRS a number of times, always by mail, but never about my writing. I rarely made enough for them to blink, and I avoided the most common red flags like home office and travel expenses. The most annoying IRS problem was the claim that I didn’t pay my taxes on my beach house rental income. I didn’t own a beach house, and how to you prove a negative? Fortunately, that beach house was owned by my siblings, and their rental agency blurred info on their forms, and the IRS computer made a wild and wrong guess on who owned it. (They apparently thought I was married to my brother since my sister doesn’t use her maiden name. Blech!) I got a copy of the form and a letter from the rental agency, and everything was fine. The next year the very same thing, the same outcome. The third year, the rental agency refused to send anything despite it being their fault. I sent the second year’s form and a note that the dang rental agency couldn’t be bothered to fix their screw up. Since the error wasn’t repeated, I’m assuming the IRS gave them a good talking to.

    Anyway, here’s a link collection of articles for American writers on the special joys of doing their taxes. All are by tax experts.

  8. Happy Saturday, Joe! It’s great to see you here today–looking forward to your weekly posts. You were very kind and considerate with that young lady. It’s always appreciated when a citizen leaves a kind word or even better, sends an email or letter about a positive interaction with a government employee.

    As a now retired public library employee, it was always appreciated when I received similar, including a letter sent by a patron to the library director, appreciating my service. I also loved the ones that were address to all the staff at whatever branch I worked at, because it was a team effort.

    Speaking of public libraries, that’s my one tip for dealing with government, be it local, state or federal–if you need to figure out who to talk to, contact your local library. Even if you can’t go into a building at the moment, you should be able to contact their information line and receive assistance over the phone, or fill out a webform for the equivalent of what we used to call “Ask A Librarian.” (Subtle, right 😉

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks so much, Dale, for your comments, compliments, and your library suggestion. My older son, who is working on a novel, mentioned last night that he has been doing research dives into the newspaper stacks of the main library here because everything isn’t necessarily online. “Ask a librarian”…I used to do that ALL of the time. Thanks for the reminder. Have a great weekend.

  9. Joe, it’s always great to see you Sat. mornings, expected or unexpected!

    Thanks for a reminder that my glass is half full–my writing income definitely won’t catch the attention of the IRS!

    • Thank you so much, Debbie! As far as writing income goes, you want to hit that sweet spot where you’re making enough to be comfortable but not enough to set off alarm bells. I’m not quite sure where that is but I’ll share it if I ever find out.

  10. Delightful story, Joe. I find it amazing that it’s possible to prove you are you over the phone, but not at…*ahem*…guess I shouldn’t go there these days. 🙂

    My bureaucracy story has to do with the VA “system”. I am my dad’s primary caregiver. He is a veteran of the US Navy, and will soon be 88 years young.

    The most infuriating aspect of the VA system is that the two sides of the VA coin…the VA itself, and the insurance product…do not “speak” to each other. I can update, verify, shake papers over the phone, give the information they want to the VA, but then when I must call his insurance company to talk about the same issue, it’s like I just landed on earth in a spacecraft, speaking Marsian or something. I remember on one call I offered to set up a string and two tin cans for them so they could interact and share information. That was not well received.

    And even though I have dutifully signed and faxed all necessary documents allowing me to speak to them on behalf of my dad, they somehow don’t have a record of it.

    I’m constantly told I must put my dad on the phone. He can’t hear. I explain that, and that I am sitting in my home office and he is sitting in his facility downtown…you get the picture. I even had one insurance rep tell me it doesn’t matter that he can’t hear. I told her it doesn’t matter to her, but it sure matters to him. I had to refrain myself from using language I never use.

    That’s my insane bureaucracy story. Rant over. Thank you for letting me get it out. I’m climbing back in my spacecraft now…

  11. Thanks, Deb. I am very sorry to hear of your experience. Your dad is fortunate to have you in his corner. I have heard similar stories from my friends of mine in identical circumstances. One is triangulated among the VA, county assistance, and Social Security. He gets a particular issue resolved and then three to six months later it kicks in again. The caseworkers frequently shift loads and as a result there is often a continuity failure.

    I should have mentioned this in my post but the documents that I had to have were: my tax return for tax year 2019; a tax return for a previous tax year; and supporting schedules and forms for both years. I was also asked a number of “personal knowledge” questions with answers that do not show up on the returns, such as maiden names of relatives, etc. It wasn’t too bad but I wouldn’t want to do it again.

    Good luck, Deb. One thing you might try if you are dealing with a particularly difficult representative is ask politely but repeatedly to speak with their supervisor. If told that they aren’t available, ask for their name and direct dial number, and failing that, ask to speak to the supervisor of the supervisor. Hope it works!

  12. I’ve wondered more than once if I should try writing some short stores for money in the future. It would probably make it more complicated that I’m living in India. I read some time ago that under the present administration some bureaus have been reduced and it’s harder to get someone on the line. The piece was about Social Security but it probably applies to other departments as well. My husband told me once never to hold for more than about ten minutes but things may have changed. I think someone may put the phone down and someone else comes along and hangs it up. This was an interesting and helpful post, Joe. I used to work the phones at a business and was asked if I was a real person or a recording. Thanks. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Thank you, Suzanne. I worked for another government agency many years ago and recently had some interaction with them. I was surprised at how much had changed and how little had changed. Part of the problem is that if an agency does a good job it gets more duties. If it does a poor job it gets its funding cut. Your husband gave you good advice, though when dealing with a government office my advice is to plan on being on hold for two hours. That way you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you’re speaking with someone before that time runs.

      These days, Suzanne, some of these robocalls sound like an actual person. I always throw something in off-script. If they ask, “Can you hear me?” I say “No.” If they ask, “Do you speak and understand English?” I say “No, but I can’t speak Spanish, either.” It throws their whole system off.

  13. I will add this: if your social security number gets hacked (mine was) which means someone is claiming it’s theirs (usually someone your age and sex) so they can claim citizenship for whatever reason, you can contact the IRS and after you establish your identity (I did this by appointment at my local branch with my IDs) your account will be forever flagged. I receive a PIN each year vis USPS that is required to file tax return for my number so they know it’s me. There is even a website where you can do all this which tells me it must happen a lot.

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience, Margaret. In my case, I believe that the letter I received was generated as a result of my having to rather abruptly change my filing status for 2019, something which also caused me some other problems. C’est la vie.
    I hope you don’t have any further problems down the road.

  15. Joe, It’s great to read an unexpected post from you. I’m always late responding on Saturdays since I’m offline until after sunset.

    Best line in your post: “She told me that the database for that information did not open until 8:30 AM.” Priceless. The database has hours. ?

    You reminded me of the many sometimes maddening, but often hilarious interactions, I’ve had with various agencies. It reminds me that I should write at least one scene in a book where the protag deals with an ill-equipped customer service agent over the phone. I’m getting into comedy.

    Thanks again!

  16. You’re welcome, Kay, and thank you for being here and your kind comments. By the way, no matter what the hour you are always welcome and never late because here at TKZ we never close.

    Good luck with that customer service agent scene. if there is one thing with which virtually any reader can identify it would be that. You’ll have a hit on your hands for sure!

  17. Interesting IRS experience, Joe. Makes me think of one of the great three lies, “Hi. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” The second great lie is, “Your check is in the mail.” I won’t post the third great lie.

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