SCOTT SIMON, host:
Americans have little more than a week to file their income tax returns. This year, the filing date is Tuesday, April 17. And we are joined in the studio now by Mark Everson, who is the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. Commissioner, thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. MARK EVERSON (Internal Revenue Service): Great to be here.
SIMON: And I want everyone to know, first off, A) you seem to be a very pleasant man, and B) you haven't put your hands in my pocket yet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EVERSON: We'll see how the interview goes.
SIMON: Let me ask you a couple of quick questions. People that might be confronted with a pile of papers now at this point - should they get an extension, and do they quite know what getting an extension entails? You just don't throw up your hands and say I need more time.
Mr. EVERSON: What people should do is file their return honestly and accurately, making sure they have the documentation to support what they're putting down on their return. If they have a question and they don't have something that they should have, they should do exactly what you suggest, which is to file an extension.
That gives them a period of time - six months, actually - to put it all together. But what they have to do is they need to protect themselves. If they think they owe money, make an estimated payment at the same time they file the extension. Now, most people get refunds, actually, so they wouldn't have to worry at all about it, if they think they're going to be due a refund.
SIMON: What are some of your thoughts about tax preparation firms, recognizing that there are hundreds of them?
Mr. EVERSON: Well, we depend on the integrity of tax practitioners across the country. And the vast majority of them are honest and professional, though there are some that are trying to, oh, inflate deductions or refunds, and they are trying to increase their fees by even helping prepare fraudulent returns. But the system is so complex now that most people, over 60 percent, actually go to paid preparers. And there's a big percentage on top of that that use the software at home. Fewer that 15 percent of all filers are doing the paper return by themselves.
SIMON: Let me ask you about a few new deductions issued. Treasury Department no longer collects the long distance tax. And people who filed their taxes can get, what, well, sometimes 30, 50, $60 back.
Mr. EVERSON: That's a standard amount. You're exactly right, this was a tax that was collected for years and then the courts said that because of the changes in the billing practices of the phone companies, it was no longer a proper tax. Thus far, through the filing season, only 69 or 70 percent of people have claimed it. People shouldn't skip this when they go through their return.
SIMON: The IRS's inspector general released a report this week that said the agency had been lax in protecting electronic data. Thousands of taxpayers might be in some kind of risk of identity theft. How big a problem is this?
Mr. EVERSON: Well, we've worked very hard to secure firewalls from external penetration. And there - every day there are attempts to get into out databases. And there has never been a penetration of the IRS databases from the outside. What the report showed, which was correct, was that we weren't as good, we weren't taking the proper steps to protect some laptops. We've worked to encrypt all of the laptops, and that's just about done; we've got a couple dozen more we've got to finish up the next few weeks.
But we have attempts every day from around the world, people trying to get into our databases. And we've concentrated great efforts on that over the years, and thus far it's been successful. But you're constantly trying to update your protections because if you think about it, who's got more data than the IRS?
SIMON: What happens when you encounter a stranger and they find out what you do?
Mr. EVERSON: Oh, I had an important job, but it was an obscure one in the Office of Management and Budget before I took this job. I'd go to a reception or something. I'd meet three or four people, and one person would always want to talk about government contracting or systems, that's the area I was in. And the others would just sort of stand around. Now it's sort of the same thing but with a twist. You meet three or four people, and one will be really interested in talking to you, but the other three will just sort of slink away.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Mr. Commissioner, thanks very much.
Mr. EVERSON: Thank you very much, and just make sure you pay your taxes.
SIMON: You'll be hearing from us, don't worry - right on time. Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, Mark Everson.