Auditor General’s report on CRA call centre issues should come as no surprise

If you’ve had reason to phone the Canada Revenue Agency of late, you may have experienced a long wait to speak to an agent—if anyone bothered to take your call.

The anecdotal experiences of our accountants and clients has been confirmed in a new Auditor General’s report that sheds light on communication shortcomings at the CRA. Worse, many Canadians are being given incorrect information that could run them afoul of tax regulations, resulting in penalties and fines—potentially even prosecution.

In the report released last week, Auditor General Michael Ferguson was blunt in his assessment of the agency’s communications issues:

“Overall, we found that the Canada Revenue Agency gave taxpayers very limited access to its call centre services, including both the automated self-service system and call centre agents.

We found that the Agency blocked more than half of the calls it received (about 29 million out of 53.5 million) because it could not handle the volume. Blocked calls were those that did not reach either an agent or the automated self-service system. Instead, they were given either a busy signal or a message to go to the website or call back later. This means that each caller made an average of three or four call attempts per week. Even after several attempts, some callers did not always reach an agent or the automated self-service system.”

CRA agents are giving Canadians incorrect information about 30 per cent of the time, according to Ferguson. In a press conference, he expressed concerns that inaccurate advice could be leading to potentially costly tax-filing mistakes on the part of taxpayers who are simply attempting to comply with CRA rules by calling the agency and seeking advice in the first place.

Unfortunately, the report’s findings came as no surprise to our staff, many of whom have raised their own concerns about the accuracy of CRA information in recent months. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

We’ve had clients who have been forced to proceed through the appeals process and, even worse, wind up in court, to address some very simple issues that the CRA representatives simply didn’t understand. While the Auditor General’s report focuses mainly on the responsiveness and accuracy of front-line agents and some senior officers, our experience shows that these issues extend into the auditor ranks, as well.

In fact, we’re seeing highly questionable tax assessments registered with seeming disregard for case law and hard facts. When challenged, we’re finding that most of the issues extend from the fact that some auditors have a relatively weak understanding of the Income Tax Act. This, of course, is a major concern, particularly for small and medium-sized business owners across Canada who don’t have the time or funds to wage a lengthy battle with the CRA after receiving inaccurate advice.

Again, it’s no surprise that incorrect advice is being given over the phone. The CRA has serious issues with customer service that need to be remedied immediately to avoid further harm to the entrepreneurial community.

Business owners who receive advice from the CRA should circle back to their accountants or tax lawyers to confirm that it is, indeed, accurate. For more complicated matters such as audits, leave the heavy lifting to an experienced accountant and let them handle all communications with the CRA.

It’s truly unfortunate, but until these customer service challenges are resolved and frontline agents receive updated training—or bother to pick up the phone more of the time—the average business owner will be hard-pressed to take the tax man’s advice at face value.

Armando Iannuzzi, Partner

Armando Iannuzzi

905-946-1300, x. 239