WASHINGTON - The next time you're stumped on your taxes, you might think twice about going to the IRS for help.
IRS centers established to help people prepare their tax returns gave incorrect answers - or no answer at all - to 43 percent of the questions asked by Treasury Department investigators posing as taxpayers.
Investigators think about half a million taxpayers may have been given wrong information between July and December 2002.
Auditors were given correct answers to just 57 percent of their tax law questions during the course of the study. Even those correct answers came with a loophole - 12 percent were correct but incomplete.
Internal Revenue Service employees gave wrong answers 28 percent of the time. Particular trouble spots were questions that dealt with the earned income tax credit, education credit and dependents.
Sometimes they gave no answer - 12 percent were told to do research in IRS publications. That response has since been banned.
Sometimes employees didn't even try: In 3 percent of the attempts to get questions answered, the auditor could not get any service.
The IRS disputed the results. Using the raw numbers gathered by Treasury investigators, the IRS recalculated the error rate and ignored any instance when a taxpayer was denied service or told to do his own research. Of the questions answered, they calculated that 67 percent were answered accurately.
"We recognize that an accuracy rate of 67 percent for tax law service is inadequate," Henry O. Lamar, the IRS commissioner overseeing individual returns, wrote to investigators.
Investigators went back undercover for two months during the height of this year's tax-filing season and found the number of incorrect answers dropped slightly to 25 percent.