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Glitches make late e-filing risky

As the tax deadline nears, some users of Intuit's TurboTax service are still having problems getting their returns filed.

With the tax deadline looming today, Intuit TurboTax users continued to report sporadic problems in electronically filing their tax returns, receiving server "time out" and "system unavailable" messages.

Some users may have had difficulties filing, especially during peak hours between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. PT, according to Intuit spokeswoman Jennifer Roberts. All users were eventually able to file their returns, she said.

The problems come on the heels of a 14-hour outage of TurboTax's e-filing system on Monday and Tuesday and a two-hour outage of SecureTax.com's system on Monday.

Despite the problems, the company's e-filing efforts are generally running smoothly, Roberts said. She said Intuit had received some 110,000 returns yesterday from users of the CD-ROM and Web versions of TurboTax, the highest volume of returns of the season.

"Nobody was left out in the cold yesterday," Roberts said.

A record number of taxpayers have filed their returns electronically this year; more than 1.2 million returns have already been e-filed with TurboTax and WebTurboTax alone.

One San Francisco WebTurboTax customer, who asked that her name not be used, said she repeatedly submitted her tax form before it was finally accepted. Calling the delay "upsetting," the customer said she had called Intuit to ask about a refund if the filing didn't go through.

"I was just lucky I had the time to do it," she said.

Despite the problems, the customer said she would probably use the service again. "It's the day before my taxes were due, and I knew that might be a problem," she said.

But Robert Sterling, digital commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications, said other Intuit customers might not be so understanding. He said Intuit is fortunate that the large majority of taxpayers will not be e-filing with them this year.

"Taxes are serious business," Sterling said. "They should have had the capacity to handle all of this. I think they got a black eye."

But considering the high demand for e-filing this year, taxpayers should be prepared for technical glitches, said Forrester Research analyst James Punishill.

"It's something that shouldn't have happened, but let's not make too much of this," he said.

But Intuit does need to improve in certain areas, Punishill said, such as the lack of a toll-free customer service number for WebTurboTax users.

"That is the broken link here," Punishill said. "If the site goes down, you feel helpless and that is a problem."

Roberts said returns filed to Intuit by midnight will get an electronic postmark and will be on time. She acknowledged that users may have problems getting through to the site as the deadline approaches, but encouraged users to keep trying.

"They're going to get there, it's just going to take them a little longer," she said.

Intuit will do what it can to make sure its customers' returns are filed on time, Roberts said, but users who try to file just before the deadline must take some responsibility if their returns are filed late. She compared the situation to the postal service and noted that those who arrive late risk being locked out.

But Sterling didn't buy that argument. Unlike the post office, there is no online equivalent to a queue. Without a line to wait in, customers will "bombard the server until they get in," Sterling said.

"The solution is to have capacity when people want it," he said. "The Web is about immediacy, which is why people like it."

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