If the Internal Revenue Service seems like a faceless bureaucracy without much heart, says a former insider, that may be because it is. Richard Yancey has seen the all-powerful IRS from the inside out, spending 12 years as a government "repo man" pursuing businesses and individuals with long overdue taxes. Yancey left the job in 2003 with decidedly mixed impressions, which he writes about in his memoir, Confessions of a Tax Collector. Yancey spoke with TIME about his years as a revenue officer, getting jumped on the job and what to do if the IRS comes knocking. (Read "Another Victim of the Ponzi Schemers: The IRS.")
You basically stumbled into the job after responding to a newspaper ad, but kept at it for 12 years. Does that mean you enjoyed it? (See the 10 valuable tips for tax season.)
No! (Laughs). I was given an enormous amount of power, and it certainly appealed to part of me that I was master of the universe for eight hours a day, or at least the little universe that was assigned to me. It was sort of a narcissistic exercise.
You quote a supervisor who told you: "If you want to help people, be a social worker. Our job is to feed the beast." Was compassion not welcome on the job?
It was given lip service. But certainly early on it was all about, "What are you going to take?" If you were a revenue officer who was shutting down businesses and seizing cars you tended to advance quicker than the revenue officer who signed installment agreements. The more risks you took, the better you tended to do.
You used a fake name on the job. Was that common?
It wasn't uncommon in the specialty that I had. Some people [carry out] personal attacks against the people trying to collect taxes, like finding out where you live and harassing you or your family. As a precautionary measure, people often took a professional pseudonym, but those things can only go so far.
Did you ever have real trouble with a taxpayer?
Well, I was assaulted once. I was accompanying a co-worker to a business seizure, for non-payment of employment taxes. I was putting stickers on the trucks in the yard, and this pick-up truck comes roaring down the street and knocked the gate right off the fence. This young man, who turned out to be the taxpayer's son, leaps out of the cab and knocks me down and starts to jump on me. He was subsequently arrested.
When that happens, the IRS trains you to immediately leave. But my reaction was anger I wasn't going to let anybody stop me so we completed the seizure. I was chastised later.
You write about a lonely, tax-delinquent business owner who would call you sometimes just to talk. Did people often lean on you emotionally?
Yes. And it made me uncomfortable, because I didn't see my job as a bartender. A lot of times there was a very personal issue underlying the tax liability. Lots of taxpayers would tell us emotional stories and let us in on things that even their spouses didn't know about.
It sounds like you had to become a frostier person to do this job. Did you notice that happening?
Yes. It was so subtle, it took a long time to wake up to the fact I'd become a different person. When I first started, there was no way I would call someone on the phone and pretend to be someone else. By the end of it, I was perfectly willing to pick up the phone and pretend to be someone's high school classmate in order to find a taxpayer.
So you would lie to people.
Was that common?
As far as I know it was not uncommon. I had trainers who would suggest tactics like that. This came all before the Revenue Restructuring Act.
That's the 1998 law that enacted a "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights." You say it made tax collectors less aggressive and took some of the teeth out of the IRS.
It took a lot of the fun out of it. The job became incredibly difficult with the restructuring act. The pendulum swung to the other side. The attitude was, "We're going to write everyone up on an installment agreement, everybody's going to try to compromise."
I hope at least some people in the IRS were honest.
The people in the IRS are just like a cross-section of humanity. There are very kind people there, and there are very dysfunctional people who probably shouldn't have a job like that. I think the vast majority of them are honest people who are in a very difficult position.
What advice do you give about dealing with the IRS?
If you get a letter from the IRS, answer the letter. If you get a phone call, talk to the person on the phone, it's their job to try to resolve the problem. And be more or less honest on your taxes. In fact, I'd err on the side of overpayment.
Richard Yancey's latest novels are The Highly Effective Detective and The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp.