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Tax sites strain to handle last-minute rush

With just three fingernail-chewing days to go before the April 17 tax deadline, online tax sites are straining to keep up with the crush.

With just three fingernail-chewing days to go before the April 17 tax deadline, online tax sites are straining to keep up with the crush.

H&R Block's Web site is moving painfully slow, customers said. On TaxCut.com, also operated by H&R Block, users got a message saying that the site was experiencing a glitch. "If you experience this problem again, please wait a couple of days and we should have the problem corrected," the message read.

"We have had between 5,000 and 10,000 simultaneous users working on their tax returns," said Linda McDougall, H&R Block's vice president of communications. "At times the site is performing fine and other times it may be slower."

H&R Block and Intuit, the online tax site leaders, have been beefing up their sites this year to prepare for estimated 33.6 million people expected to file online this year. The two companies have added servers, bulked up technical support and added customer service representatives.

Despite reports of slow-downs, there haven't been any outages this week and both companies plan to have full staffing through the weekend.

Analysts have said this is a key year for online tax sites to prove themselves as customers start to develop brand loyalty to certain sites.

According to Keynote Systems, which monitors Web site performance, Intuit's Turbotax.com was the fastest site. Keynote tracked how fast users could log on to the homepage of four tax sites. Intuit was fastest with three seconds and Taxcut placed last, taking more than six seconds.

"Last week our research showed that all the sites were operating very quickly," Keynote spokeswoman Mary Lindsay said. "This week, the numbers indicate that they are handling huge traffic."

Intuit may have had the advantage of experience over H&R Block this year. Intuit's site was fully operational last year and completed about 250,000 federal tax returns, said Bob Meighan, vice president of consumer tax group for San Diego-based Intuit.

Meighan said that the company knew what to prepare for.

"Last year our challenge was how to do backups quickly without bringing the site down," Meighan said. "We figured out how to backup our customer's data on a regular basis without compromising our system's performance."

H&R Block said that if customers are experiencing delays, they have the option of downloading its TaxCut software, which enables them to do their returns on the PC. The $9.99 charge for the software is the same price as doing returns over the company's Web site.