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IRS says: 'Don't lick that stamp!'

User friendly" isn't a term most people associate with the Internal Revenue Service.

But when it comes to the electronic frontier, the IRS is doing its best to persuade taxpayers to file via computer rather than through the mail.

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Last year, 1 in 5 personal tax returns got zapped through cyberspace (see chart, page 21). This year, the IRS hopes to boost that ratio to 1 in 4, even though many taxpayers worry about the security and privacy of electronic filing.

"We're very, very encouraged with the growth that we've gotten," says Bob Barr, the agency's assistant commissioner for electronic tax administration. Last month, at least 750,000 taxpayers had already zapped their returns to the agency.

There are several advantages:

*You'll get your refund in half the time - even faster if you allow the money to be deposited directly into a savings or checking account. Katie Gable, a longtime tax "zapper" in Quinton, Ala., says she's never waited more than 11 days for her refund.

*Unlike with paper returns, the IRS acknowledges each electronic return it receives. If there's a basic mistake, such as the wrong Social Security number, the agency will let you know.

*It's more accurate. Because the return goes directly into IRS computers, there's less chance someone at the agency will key in wrong numbers.

Of course, the IRS has its own reasons for groovin' on cyberspace. Electronic returns are more accurate than paper forms and cheaper to process (at least in the long run). By getting more taxpayers to go paperless, the agency expects to save substantial amounts of money.

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That's why the agency is making it easier than ever.

For the first time ever, the process is completely paperless. Instead of sending in a signature document - last year's process - the IRS has sent out 8 million postcards to taxpayers who used a computer to prepare their returns. The postcards contain an individual code that substitutes for a signature. People who use a paid preparer can choose their own signature code.

Also new this year, filers can pay any tax due electronically. They can ask the US Treasury to debit their checking or savings account. It's a free service and, even if you file early, you can authorize the transaction to go through as late as April 15.

Or, for the first time, you can pay by credit card. People using the industry-leading TurboTax program can use a Discover Card to pay their income tax (with a 1.5 percent charge tacked on). For a 2.5 percent charge, they can use their American Express, MasterCard, or Discover Card through a system run by US Audiotex (888-2PAY-TAX).

One last inducement: Many companies are charging their customers less to zap tax forms to the IRS.

In fact, taxpayers with $20,000 or less in adjusted gross income can file for free electronically if they use the Internet version of TurboTax. The Internet version of rival TaxCut offers the same deal if you qualify for the IRS's 1040EZ form (typically, people who earn less than $50,000 and don't itemize).

Will everyone go electronic? No.

Even though the electronic returns are encrypted and sent over secure phone lines (not the Internet), many worry about how safe and private they are.

Even computer users are a little gun-shy, especially if they've had a bad experience in the past (when the process was more difficult).

"The first time I tried to file electronically, it was just a disaster," says Bob Borgmeyer, business turnaround consultant based in Tucson, Ariz. "My taxes ended up being late and everything." He's sticking with the Post Office this year.

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