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IRS under online onslaught

Traffic at the Internal Revenue Service's Web site is mounting and some users have complained they cannot access parts of the site.

Traffic at the Internal Revenue Service's Web site is mounting as the April 15 tax deadline looms, and some users have complained they cannot access parts of the site.

The IRS says it has been alerted to the problem, and hasn?t received complaints since a routine upgrade to its system late last week.

Due to the system upgrade, the site can now handle up to six million visitors, said Linda Wallace the IRS's chief of electronic information services. But the number that can access online tax forms is much lower.

"The forms are the most popular area of the site," Wallace said. "Up to 2,500 people can simultaneously download the forms. If we see that we need more capacity, we'll just lease more equipment and bandwidth."

The peak hours for traffic are between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. nationwide. The IRS has seen a 280 percent increase in traffic since last tax season. "It's a dramatic increase, which we expected," Wallace added.

Still, some Net-savvy taxpayers say they couldn't get the forms online.

"When I tried to download the forms, I just couldn't do it. It was very frustrating spending so much time on the IRS site trying to find the form and then I couldn't even download it," said Kaye Caldwell, policy director for CommerceNet, who tried to download an extension form on Saturday.

Caldwell searched online for alternative sites and quickly found the form she needed.

The IRS's experience in cyberspace has been rocky. Last year, the agency shelved plans to let users file taxes online, citing security issues. A Congressional report was critical of the planned service, called Cyberfile.

The IRS site is in heavy demand, receiving two million hits per day. There are about 600 tax forms and 100 publications available on the site, which offers an alternative to lines at the post office or navigating through the IRS automated phone system. The site has answers to more than a hundred tax questions, supplies copies of every tax filing form, and has a nationwide guide on "where to file," but users can't actually file through the site.

Each day the filing deadline nears, the site's traffic grows. This frustrates some surfers who say visiting the site is a waste of time because they can?t download the forms they need or access the home page, in some cases.

Another visitor said he tried to download information on multiple occasions without success.

"It is severely underpowered or maintained. I can't say which, but it is likely to be the former." said Kevin Welch, a research biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who tried out the site before last Wednesday. "I didn't use if for anything because it took so long to establish a [connection] and then longer to reach the pages."

Not all are dissatisfied, however.

"I have had much better success with the IRS site than most. I don't have much trouble, but I'm also running a 28.8 on a 56k phone line," said Thomas Pringle, who has used the IRS site on a few occasions.

In a message he posted to a newsgroup on March 22, he did say that he has been denied access three or four times, but added "It usually works."

A spokesman for the IRS was unaware of any new complaints since its system was enhanced to make more incoming lines available.

"There is an incredible demand," IRS spokesman Steven Pyrek said today. "We were hearing over the last couple of weeks that the system was maxed out at certain times of the day, but we haven't gotten any indications that people aren't getting the forms now."

Pyrek said most of the forms have been online since last tax season. Most of the email the IRS gets about the site, he said, is positive.

"It helps taxpayers because we?ve been able to free up toll-free lines, and they don't need to call the 800 number for simple questions or to get forms. Also people don?t have to wait a week or so for the forms to come in the mail," he said.

Taxpayers have listed some other online options in various "tax" newsgroups. The nongovernmental site most suggested by Netizens is 1040.com, which has state and federal tax forms and the latest tax-filing news from the IRS.