A former high-frequency trader fed up with waiting on the phone for an Internal Revenue Service customer service agent has developed, in essence, bots that are continuously near the front of the call queue and will switch places with you for a few bucks.
The short-staffed IRS call center is notorious for sending taxpayers through an endless labyrinth of a menu, only to end up on hold for hours. Even if a caller knows the requisite menu numbers to get a human, the wait is still an estimated 40 minutes. Citizens who dial the official IRS customer service line, 800-908-4490, have a 62 percent chance of never reaching a live voice, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Andrew Valiente, who aspires to become the Airbnb of call-sharing, says he developed software that helps route paying individuals, businesses and power of attorneys to a breathing person within 1 to 6 minutes. Fees of $1 to $6 per call are based on dynamic pricing that compares the amount of time the robots had to wait to get to the front of the queue and the number of minutes the purchaser would have to wait, he said.
Valiente says he understands there are questions about charging people for a free government service. His response is that the paid service, dubbed enQ, actually saves his core customers money.
"These are professionals who are wasting a lot of their time," or "your accountant who is spending 45 minutes on hold and he's charging you $100 an hour," Valiente said
So, how did this Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering hack IRS customer service? Valiente declined to reveal specifics, but said he and some partners over the past year tinkered with VoIP and computer algorithms to place and stagger calls for just-in-time service. Just to be clear, there is no unauthorized access taking place, he said.
The software is designed such that the phone agent does not receive a dead call, Valiente said.
The artificial intelligence makes a call, and before the call reaches the IRS assistant, enQ tries to sell that prime spot to a customer, he said.
Forecasting supply and demand put food on the table during his previous career in robo-trading.
Is This Legal?
He speculates that the calculated calling does not add to normal wait times for nonpaying citizens.
"The percentage of the calls that we make relative to the mass amount that are inbound from everyone else is quite small," Valiente said.
In February 2015, the IRS anticipated that volume would increase from 39.9 to 48 million calls, compared to fiscal year 2014, according to GAO officials. The IRS budget for 2015 was $10.9 billion and covered 81,279 employees -- representing a continued funding and staffing decline below 2009 levels.
Valiente said he did not contact the IRS first before opening shop.
"When you think about Uber, they did not go to the taxi authority first," he said, referring to the ride-sharing service that has sparred with the cab industry for its reliance on noncertified drivers. "But I did read the law. I read the law very carefully."
A disclaimer on the enQ website reads: "enQ. Inc. and the callenq.com website are privately owned and are not owned or operated by any U.S. federal state, or local agency. The enQ website is not an agent, representative, or otherwise affiliated with any government entities listed on the website. The name of any governmental agencies on the website are for descriptive and informational purposes only."
IRS spokesman Dean Patterson had no comment to offer on the matter, but pointed Nextgov to a Jan. 14 recommendation by IRS Commissioner John Koskinen that citizens go online for faster service.
“IRS.gov is the best place for taxpayers to go for information about filing their income tax returns this year,” Koskinen said. “Although we will have more people staffing our phone lines this year, we expect those lines to remain busy so we encourage people to visit the Web first as the quickest and easiest way to get assistance.”
But even Internet help can be slow, requiring that citizens enter personal information to receive, via snail mail, a PIN or prior-year return. Sometimes, online guidance can be nonexistent. On Feb. 4, a suspected hardware failure knocked IRS computers offline, meaning e-filing and web access went kaput.
So far, the Federal Trade Commission does not seem to have taken any enforcement action against enQ.
"The FTC generally does not comment on the practices of particular companies outside of official agency actions," commission spokesman Jay Mayfield told Nextgov in an email.
Next In Line: Social Security Beneficiaries
A very complicated 2014 tax year was the genesis of enQ, Valiente said.
"Because I moved countries, I changed jobs, and my former company merged, my tax situation was very complex," he said. "And then when I moved, a lot of my tax documents were all sent to my former address in Singapore. I ended up filing three times," each situation requiring another call for help, "and I spent hours and hours and hours on hold."
Since launching Feb. 1, the firm’s customer base comprises fewer than 100 accountants, lawyers and individuals, plus a professional who runs a tax preparation business, Valiente said.
After this year's tax season, he expects to launch a similar service for callers wanting a shortcut to a Social Security Administration representative.