WASHINGTON - More than 2.4 million people have used free tax preparation software provided through the Internal Revenue Service Web site to file their 2002 tax return, the Treasury Department said Tuesday.
The figure does not include taxpayers who used the software during the week before the April 15 deadline, when the IRS gets a flood of last-minute returns.
The Internal Revenue Service exceeded its goal of 2 million users filing through the free service, despite complaints from consumer groups that taxpayers sometimes are subject to advertisements and solicitations for other financial products.
The free tax preparation program encourages electronic filing by giving taxpayers access to the computer tools they need to send over the Internet their returns.
"No one likes paying taxes. It's too confusing and time-consuming," said Treasury Secretary John Snow. "With this new free file Web site, we're seeing great success that has saved more than 2 million taxpayers time and money - and an even bigger bonus is they get their refunds in half the time."
A taxpayer can expect a refund within two weeks if filing electronically, but it can take up to eight weeks if the IRS receives the return by mail during the last weeks of the filing season.
The IRS plans to review the program's first-year performance before next year's filing season.
Consumer groups have raised concerns that the programs market other financial products, including mortgages, investment services and tax preparation assistance.
The service is provided by 17 companies that allow qualified taxpayers to prepare their returns free of charge. The companies transmit the returns electronically to the IRS.
The program is part of a push to get 80 percent of all returns filed electronically by 2007.
At a hearing last week of a subcommittee of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, IRS Acting Commissioner Bob Wenzel said the IRS probably will not meet the 2007 goal.
Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., chairman of the subcommittee, said the congressionally imposed deadline seemed arbitrary.