The Internal Revenue Service used to go out of its way to burnish its Simon Legree reputation at this time of year. But the federal tax collector has been cultivating a kindler, gentler image of late.

In a recent circular, it counseled taxpayers who can't pay not to panic:

'If you can't immediately pay the taxes you owe, consider some stress-reducing alternatives. You can apply for an IRS installment agreement, setting your own monthly payment amount and due date, and getting a reduced late payment penalty rate. You also have various options for charging your balance on a credit card, either as part of an electronic return or via a phone call to a processing agent.'

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