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Bored man on phone | accountingweb | HMRC no helpline
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HMRC is barely phoning it in

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After trying to file his own tax return, The Imprudent Accountant discovers that the sure way to tell the difference between HMRC and the fraudsters is that you can actually talk to the crooks on the phone.

10th Aug 2023
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As life had become a little quieter, late July seemed like an ideal time to complete my own self assessment tax return. The alternative would probably have been a delay until the Christmas holidays or, horror of horrors, a painful exercise carried out during the last week in January.

The starting point, achieved gradually over the previous couple of months, was putting together the various underlying documents required to ensure that the return would be complete and correct.

These days, banks tend to have the requisite data available online (if only you can remember your password), while those of us trained as accountants should be capable of keeping paperwork relating to business income and expenditure.

As a veteran, my details are nicely saved on the HMRC area of the government’s website, which should have made life simple.

What could be easier? Well – almost any exercise you care to contemplate.

Closed for business

Having seen angry articles about the topic, I was already aware that the HMRC helpline was closed for business throughout the summer. This seemed counterintuitive when you consider that the last thing they want is a panicking taxpayer telephoning with awkward queries on 31 January 2024, when they could have enjoyed a leisurely conversation the previous July.

That shouldn’t have mattered, since nothing in my return was especially challenging – or so I thought.

However, having completed the return then printed them out with HMRC’s calculation, there was an anomaly. One item of income was overstated and, being an eagle-eyed tax specialist, I instantly realised that something had been double-counted.

Trying to discover what this might be proved impossible so I resorted to the sensible backstop of attempting to utilise HMRC’s much boasted-about chat facility. Unfortunately, it didn’t wish to engage in any question relating to such matters, recommending that I telephoned an adviser instead.

The good news was that I spent only 20 minutes doing my Blondie impression while hanging on the telephone, being sent from pillar to post but never getting close to a human being. At the end of those 20 minutes, rather than making me hang around for several hours more, the call was unceremoniously cut off.

Farcical delays

Coincidentally, soon afterwards a copy of the Daily Express, leading with the somewhat ungrammatical headline “End this farce! Britons could suffer delays up to 3 hours on hold to the tax office”, caught my eye.

Apparently, a dedicated journalist had been testing out various corporate telephone support facilities and concluded: “The tax man was the worst offender in a call-handling probe by the Daily Express. We were left on hold for almost three hours before we were able to speak with a member of staff at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).”

To be fair to HMRC, the three-hour wait was actually divided into an aborted 90-minute call followed by a mere 82-minute delay second time around, but the query was eventually resolved.

That puts the Daily Express one up on me. After much to-ing and fro-ing, I did finally manage to fix the issue myself so I can now sleep peacefully knowing that I will not have to file another tax return for a year or so.

Fraudster calling

That might have been the end of the story except that last week, out of the blue, I received a call back from HMRC.

Strangely one might think, the agent calling me had an American accent and sounded very electronic. The voice might have been chosen to be alluring but failed to seduce me with the kind of sweet nothings that are intended to pick your pocket. You know the kind of thing: “You don’t want to get arrested. Press one.” Apparently, and it is hard to admit this, I had ignored a letter from HMRC informing me of some kind of illicit behaviour. As a result, a prosecution could be in the offing so before too long this column might disappear.

We have all been warned repeatedly that fraudulent calls from people claiming to represent HMRC are becoming more prevalent. However, this leads to a new issue.

If the call had purportedly come from my bank, they offer a 24-hour fraud hotline, so that you can discover whether the communication hailed from their head office or an offshore fraudster.

Given that HMRC is not expected to answer the telephone until September and its chatbot is hard to find and unhelpful, how are innocent members of the public supposed to verify whether a threatening and quite frankly chilling telephone call from HMRC could land you in jail or merely empty your bank account?

I don’t have the answer to this, but I fear that neither do HMRC (Holy Mess Requires Correction) or the Treasury.

Replies (5)

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By Hugo Fair
10th Aug 2023 13:51

Pulled the two threads together nicely there - whilst generously also somewhat pulling the punches deservedly aimed at HMRC in the first half!

But although this kind of article used to be therapeutic for the author (and at least some readers), it fails to salve when the storyline, or something highly equivalent, has become a daily occurrence.
No longer just a light-hearted filler for the holiday season, but a cri de coeur being screamed into an otherwise silent void (HMRC support services) from an increasingly angst-ridden sector.

Thanks (10)
Morph
By kevinringer
11th Aug 2023 10:04

"If the call had purportedly come from my bank, they offer a 24-hour fraud hotline...."

A few years ago I started to receive 2SV codes from HMRC. It appeared someone was trying to access my tax account. As pointed out, banks have a 24/7 fraud hotline, but not HMRC. I phoned HMRC and after queueing they couldn't help me because I couldn't remember my UTR (I was on leave at the time and didn't have my UTR to hand). In the end I complained to HMRC about their lack of fraud hotline. I received a letter of apology, but HMRC learned no lessons and anyone who suspects hackers are trying to access their account will have to wait until the helplines reopen, then join the long queues.

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Replying to [email protected]:
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By Hugo Fair
11th Aug 2023 12:34

As anyone who has ever used any of those 'facilities' (such as report a phishing or scam email) will know ... you'll be 'lucky' to receive even an acknowledgement to more than 1 in 5 that you send.
However that's no great loss, since those fully-automated replies tell you nothing - basically just saying 'thanks for contacting us'!
There is absolutely NO evidence that HMRC follow-up anything of which you notify them (either in general or with the person who is being stressed out).

Thanks (5)
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By Pam Moreland
11th Aug 2023 20:44

Two calls to agent line. 36 minutes the first and 24 the second. Absolute rubbish.
And I got the American female as well ringing my mobile. However I knew it was a scam. When was the last time you actually got a letter from HMRC? I've been waiting over six months so far on requests for details of overlap relief and penalty appeals. I feel a formal complaint coming on except that there is a minimum three month wait on those as well. Happy days!

Thanks (1)