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Tax sites in tiptop shape ahead of deadline

Most of the top tax-preparation Web sites have been crunching numbers smoothly during the crucial week before the U.S. tax-filing deadline after several earlier strains.

Most of the top tax-preparation Web sites have been crunching numbers smoothly during the crucial week before the U.S. tax-filing deadline after several strained to handle traffic spikes earlier this year.

Internet traffic-tracking company Keynote Systems said customers of tax sites such as Hrblock.com, Quicken.com and Tax Web were able to download the sites last week about 98 percent of the time. Keynote, which measures how often and how rapidly a site can be accessed, said the largest tax-preparation sites took about 1.64 seconds to download.

"So far, so good, but the true test is yet to come," said Mary Lindsay, a Keynote spokeswoman. "The tax sites implemented some infrastructure changes, which has improved availability."

This is traditionally crunch time for tax-preparation services. Traffic usually crests during the last several days before the income tax deadline. The Internal Revenue Service said 20 percent of the nation's population usually waits until the last day to file their returns and it said it expects its IRS.gov Web site to receive 60 million hits Monday.

With the April 16 deadline only five days away, some procrastinators are sweating to file on time. They are demanding service from the tax sites that is reliable, easy to use, and speeds them through their tax preparation. Most sites offer advice and show people how to complete their income taxes through automated systems.

To provide that kind of service and handle the rising demand, tax-preparation sites must bolster their systems.

"Every year we ramp up technologically," said Intuit spokeswoman Julie Miller, who added that the software maker's Quicken.com had just surpassed the 2 million-customer mark Wednesday. "We build for maximum capacity at the beginning of each year."

This year about 6 million people are expected to use online tax-preparation sites.

Earlier this year, tax-preparation sites began to show signs of strain as a swarm of early bird taxpayers went online. Keynote said that by February, the performances of Quicken.com, Hrblock.com--the Net unit of tax stalwart H&R Block--and 1040.com began to slow as traffic climbed.

The slowdown at Quicken.com was caused by a glitch with a banner advertisement on the site. An unrelated problem forced the company to shut down the site for 24 hours, said Julie Miller, an Intuit spokeswoman.