Tax sites get last-minute rush

The usual rush to file taxes by the midnight deadline slows some tax sites. Online filers are also facing another frustration: price increases.

3 min read
The usual last-minute rush to file taxes by Monday's midnight deadline has slowed some tax sites and meant additional fees for some online filers.

"It's turning out to be a procrastinator's year," said Mark Ciaramitaro, vice president of e-solutions at H&R Block, which has seen an upsurge in traffic similar to that of other online tax sites.

Despite a strong push from the Internal Revenue Service and well-developed online products from the likes of H&R Block and Intuit, online tax preparation has been slow to take off to date. In the past, consumers have cited security issues and privacy concerns for not preparing their taxes online.

But at least some consumers seem to be getting over their fears.

About 300,000 returns were electronically filed through Intuit's systems on Sunday alone, including 150,000 that were filed online using the company's TurboTax product, spokeswoman Julie Miller said. That compares with about 2 million returns that were filed through the Web service as of March 11.

"Yesterday was a big day. Today is a big day too," Miller said on Monday.

H&R Block's Ciaramitaro declined to give exact numbers of returns filed through the company's Web service but said the company saw "huge" numbers over the weekend and Monday. In terms of number of returns filed through its system, Monday has been the biggest day ever for H&R Block, Ciaramitaro said.

Traffic on a number of sites spiked on Sunday, according to ComScore Networks, which monitors site traffic. Intuit's Quicken.com, for instance, had 629,000 unique visitors Sunday, up from 484,000 the previous day and up from its seasonal average of 410,000 daily visitors, according to ComScore. H&R Block saw 237,000 visitors on its site Sunday, up from 207,000 Saturday and up from its average of 150,000 daily visitors.

The IRS's Web site was also popular Sunday, with 617,000 unique visitors, up from 493,000 Saturday and up from its daily average of 347,000 visitors.

"They went crazy on Sunday," said Dan Hess, vice president of ComScore.

But the last-minute returns were not without frustrations. Site slowdowns hit a number of tax preparation and information sites over the weekend, according to Keynote Systems, which monitors Web site performance issues. The homepage of H&R Block's TaxCut, for instance, normally takes about two seconds to download, but around 7 p.m. on Sunday, it took nearly 18 seconds to download the page, said Heather Kroupa, a product manager at Keynote.

Keynote tests Web sites, using its high-speed Internet connections, Kroupa said. "That seems to imply that if you were at home on dial-up connection, you'd be waiting a long time for your page to load," she said.

Intuit's TurboTax site experienced a similar slowdown yesterday afternoon, with page download times peaking at more than 11 seconds around 5 p.m., Kroupa said.

Mike Vipond, a Minneapolis salesman, said he completed his tax return offline using the boxed version of the TurboTax software and tried without luck to file the return Monday morning via the TurboTax Web site.

"All I get is a message that says it's temporarily unavailable," he said. "It's just frustrating to go to that effort and now my return is just sitting there."

And that wasn't the only frustration. Last-minute Web filers can expect to pay for their tardiness. Both H&R Block and Intuit upped their online rates on April 1 by $10. Taxpayers can now expect to pay $29.95, up from $19.95, on either site to print out or e-file their returns. At the same time, over the counter retailers tend to be discounting their tax software products.

H&R Block upped its fees to reflect the cost of bulking up its system for the stress placed on them by last-minute filers, Ciaramitaro said.

"I have a huge April peak. It costs a lot more in server capacity. We're probably not going to use that server capacity the rest of the year," he said.

But the increase may not affect the number of folks who rush to the Web sites to file Monday.

"Not surprisingly, (the higher) pricing doesn't impact demand," Miller said. "The folks that wait until last minute, they need to get their taxes done."

News.com's David Becker contributed to this report.