Uncle Sam needs some help collecting unpaid taxes, so the Internal Revenue Service will now use private companies to tackle this growing backlog of debt.
The IRS announced earlier this month that it's hired four debt collection agencies to round up outstanding payments from taxpayers who've been contacted numerous times and still haven't paid.
The new private debt collection program is starting off slowly: At first, just a few hundred taxpayers a week will receive mailings and subsequent phone calls. That will grow to thousands of people a week later in the spring and summer.
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These debt collectors won't simply call people out of the blue. Taxpayers with overdue tax bills will always receive several collection notices from the IRS through the mail before their accounts are turned over to the private collectors. The collection agencies will then send a letter of their own, informing the taxpayer that their account has been transferred to them. These companies must clearly identify themselves as working for the IRS in all communications.
"The IRS is taking steps throughout this effort to ensure that the private collection firms work responsibly and respect taxpayer rights," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement. "The IRS also urges taxpayers to be on the lookout for scammers who might use this program as a cover to trick people."
The IRS says it will not assign accounts to private collection agencies involving certain types of taxpayers, including: minors, those in combat zones, victims of tax-related identity theft, accounts that are subject to installment agreements or classified as an innocent spouse case.
Like all debt collectors, those contracted to recover back taxes must follow the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act which spells out when they can call, whom they can call, and what they can and cannot say. The IRS told NBC News these private collectors will not use robocalls to contact taxpayers.
The IRS did not decide to do this on its own. Congress required the agency to use private-sector debt collectors as a way to help fund road improvement projects, when it passed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act in 2015.
Some IRS employees are opposed to private debt collection. Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement that he expects the result will be "collection agents getting paid to harass taxpayers, many of whom need assistance, not threats."