Illustration by Sibel Ergener

The Endless Hell of Discovering You Were Found Guilty of Tax Fraud in Absentia

This Tax Day story beats yours

One of the kindest people I’ve never met is the woman who told me my debt with the IRS had been completely settled. She was helpful, good-humored and encouraging. More than anything else, she told me exactly what I wanted to hear: “Yes, we received your check. And yes, you no longer owe the IRS tens of thousands of dollars.”

I’d never been so relieved. For a year, I’d been working three jobs — an 8-to-4 day gig, a 5-to-11 night gig and a Saturday-and-Sunday waiter gig — to dig myself out of the giant mountain of debt the federal government claimed I’d racked up with them. And now, it was finally all over. I could go back to a normal life where not every penny needed to be earmarked for the IRS and not every minute needed to be spent working.

But then, suddenly, the call turned ominous: “Can you hold for a moment?” the woman asked.

My elation turned to panic. Did I owe them more money? Had they found a last store of interest that I hadn’t paid off? Was I facing criminal charges? My mind started formulating all the possible reasons for there to be more to this story, none of them good.

It turned out, though, to be the exact opposite. After holding for what seemed like forever, she told me the IRS had charged me too much interest, and that I was entitled to $458.13 of my money back. I think I did cry out at that point, because I was so overjoyed at the news. I felt vindicated somehow and that I’d won, even though what I was winning was my own money, and not that much of it.

I arranged with the nice woman to send the check to my home address at the time — the one on the check I’d written the IRS to pay off what they claimed I owed. She said it would arrive within “two to three weeks.”

In actuality, though, it would take three years.

My trouble with the IRS started back in March 2012 when I called them to find out why I hadn’t received my federal tax refund yet. A brusque, extremely unhelpful woman told me it was because it had been garnished. “Why was it garnished?” I asked.

“Because you’re guilty of tax fraud,” she said.

Deeply confused, I asked how that was possible, but she didn’t believe that I knew nothing about what was going on. “You haven’t gotten anything in the mail telling you about this?” she asked with obvious incredulity.

I repeated that I knew nothing, and asked how this had happened. “We aren’t allowed to discuss that over the phone, but you’ve obviously done something wrong or we wouldn’t have found you guilty.”

She continued to stonewall me about any and all details, while explaining how I owed so much, and how much interest I would have to pay. “Don’t you have this money?” she asked.

“Obviously not!” I screamed—so loudly that neighbors I never before had met later asked me if I was okay.

It turns out that in 2002 — a full decade earlier — the IRS had found me guilty of tax fraud in absentia and that I now owed them more than $70,000 since the interest had been compiling for all that time—unbeknownst, of course, to me. Worse yet, the money I owed had been folded in with my student loans — making my tab (and its subsequent interest charges) only that much higher.

Thankfully, after numerous phone calls between the Department of Education, the collection agency in charge of my student loans and the Department of the Treasury, my student loans were separated from the amount I owed. I was then able to prove that I couldn’t pay off what I owed the IRS because of how little I was making at my serving job at the time, which put a temporary hold on any additional interest. This still left me owing the IRS far more than I could afford at the time.

During all this, and for several months afterward, I tried to find out why I was found guilty of tax fraud in the first place. The closest I ever got was the woman who made me aware of the verdict at the very beginning telling me I “must have done something wrong.” Whenever I asked someone else at the IRS, I was told it couldn’t be discussed over the phone, but they could mail me a copy of the transcript. I tried several times to obtain this transcript, using my home and work addresses, but to no avail. I tried to get them to email me a transcript, but still received nothing.

I consulted with a couple of tax attorneys, who were honest enough to tell me that I had a losing case. “Even if we get them to admit they’ve done something wrong,” one told me, “they’ll probably just still charge you what they say you owe them.” My case wouldn’t have gone to court, and even if I could have afforded to do that, there was no regulatory body to help. I would’ve had to sue the federal government, which was definitely not going to happen.

Meanwhile, I began working multiple jobs to save up enough to pay off my debt to the IRS. I had to be careful, however. If my monthly income exceeded a certain point, and the IRS found out about it, the interest would no longer be on hold, and I would have 10 percent of what remained of my debt piling on every day.

Eventually, after working the better part of a year at two full-time jobs and a weekend job, I managed to pay off the last of the debt. Of course, I couldn’t transfer the money or anything that simple. The IRS will only allow you to mail them a check. I knew better than to expect them to let me know if they received it, so I called a week later to made make sure my check had arrived. That’s when the nice woman told me I was entitled to to $458.13 of my money back.

Too much interest charged.

The first excuse the IRS gave me as to why my $458.13 didn’t come in the promised two-to-three-week time frame was that it had been returned by the post office. I called the IRS and asked them to send the check again. Two weeks later, I got another notice that the check had been returned. At this point, I had to mail a receipt of the notice to explain that my address was correct, and then wait 45 to 90 days to have my check sent out again. After 90 days, I called the IRS again. Two weeks later, I got a notice that the check had been returned a third time.

It went on like this for another year. I tried getting the check sent to my job; I called the post office to make sure they were on the lookout for anything addressed to me from the IRS. Nothing worked.

I considered giving up. It’s not like I’d been expecting money back when I mailed in that final check. “It’s the principle of the thing” always sounds like such a weak argument to everyone but the person saying it, and I didn’t want to be that guy. But this wasn’t extra money—it was my money that they had taken from me. They were expecting me not to fight. How many people got screwed out of money they deserved because of the bureaucratic hell that the IRS subjected people to all the time?

So I settled on Friday as IRS Day.

Whenever I had a free moment, I would call the IRS on the first Friday of every month to learn about the status of my check. If I was working a day job, I called on my lunch hour (usually the entire lunch hour would be spent on hold, so the call would continue into the afternoon with a pair of headphones). If I worked overnight, I would stay up and call first thing in the morning (this always had the highest odds of being answered within an hour).

Nothing is simple with the IRS. I understand that they have more regulations to deal with than the average person can comprehend, and I understood that it wasn’t the fault of any one person with whom I spoke on the phone. It was still fucking frustrating.

I would sometimes spend more than 90 minutes on hold waiting to talk to someone. At one point, I calculated that I had spent 72 hours — three full days of my life — simply on hold with the IRS.

In the summer of 2015, more than two years after I had learned about this money, I had to wait another 45 days while my case was reviewed because it had been so long without the check being delivered, and the interest rates might have changed. The idea that all of this could’ve been for naught made me furious, but I was repeatedly told there was nothing to do but wait.

Thankfully, I got this decision overturned with another phone call. After waiting 60 days with no word, I called again. It wasn’t my fault that the check had failed to arrive, after all, so why should I be penalized? The person to whom I spoke that time agreed. Still, the Friday calls continued for another 15 months.

Then, five months ago — kind of all of a sudden and out of nowhere — the check came. It turned out that the entire time the IRS had been mailing me checks, they’d been mailing them out to the wrong name. I don’t know why they put another name on my mail, but that’s why the post office wasn’t delivering them to my house.

I couldn’t believe it at first. I held the envelope in my hands, not daring to open it for a few minutes. What if it was a joke? What if it was actually an invoice because the check had been returned? But, no, it was the check, all $458.13 of it. When I cashed it the next day, I asked the teller to make a copy of it and showed it to people at work. I still have that copy, and the receipt for the deposit, on my desk.

I had joked with my friends about throwing a party with the money or spending it on something wild and frivolous, but the truth is, it’s still just sitting in my savings account. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t have the heart to spend it yet. I’d rather just keep it close and always be able to check in on it. After all, I’ve never worked so hard for something in my life.