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As tax day looms, e-filing sites go down

Intuit's TurboTax and SecureTax.com each experience outages as filers pile onto their sites to meet the tax deadline.

With April 15 fast approaching, taxpayers trying to file online were barred from using two popular e-filing sites for several hours today and yesterday.

Taxpayers trying to file with either the Web or CD-ROM versions of Intuit's TurboTax were unable to file their returns electronically for much of the day today while the company performed "routine maintenance" from midnight Pacific time. The service came back up at 1 p.m. Pacific time.

Meanwhile, SecureTax.com had a problem with its Web servers, which caused many users to be locked out of the system between 2:30 p.m. PT and 4:30 p.m PT yesterday.

Digital commerce analyst Marc Johnson of Jupiter Communications said the outages indicate that electronic filing companies are having difficulty handling the onslaught of traffic as April 15 approaches. He compared the problems to those faced recently by online brokerages and Web broadcasters, which have had problems scaling up during periods of high volume.

"[E-filing sites] never see peak demands like they are seeing over the next two days," Johnson said. "The demand is really outstripping the technology to a great degree."

According to Intuit spokeswoman Jennifer Roberts, some 1.2 million returns have been electronically filed using TurboTax this season. Describing today's as planned "routine maintenance," she said the company's TurboTax systems were taken offline in order to back up the systems.

Roberts said the e-filing system was the only function that was affected by the outage; users were still able to fill out returns and print them. Roberts did acknowledge that the backup took longer than Intuit expected, but said users shouldn't worry about the system outage.

"There will be plenty of time for them to file," Roberts said.

But at least one TurboTax user found plenty to worry about. A Los Angeles resident who asked that his name not be used said he filed his return last night using Intuit's CD-ROM software. He became worried that his filing had been lost after he was unable to check the site today for confirmation.

Although Intuit placed a message on its site explaining that the system was down for maintenance and apologizing for the problem, the message didn't give the user much confidence.

"It's like the airlines," he said. "You feel like the engine has exploded and they're not telling you."

Randy Tullos, chief executive of SecureTax.com, said the problem at the SecureTax Web site involved the company's load-distribution system. The system wasn't configured properly, overloading some servers and locking out users. Tullos estimated that some 1,500 customers were affected.

"We didn't anticipate the jump in volume," Tullos said.

Tullos said about 200,000 people had already filed their returns through SecureTax, which is about four times more than last year. He said that SecureTax has experienced days when volume reached levels ten times higher than those seen last year.

The problem was fixed, and shouldn't recur, he said. "I'd be very surprised if it did," Tullos added.

But Johnson said taxpayers have already shown a reluctance to e-file their returns and the outages won't help. Recent research by Jupiter indicated that less than two percent of online users planned to file their returns online.

"This could slow down that adoption even further and they only get one chance a year," he said.