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It seems to me that in recent years, unless my memory is wrong, that filing an extension was not necessary; that they got rid of that necessity. That one could pay by April 15 but file later (October?) without filing an extension.
Is this true?

Well, it depends on what you mean by 'filing an extension'. You can either file Form 4868, or if you are making a payment using DirectPay, EFTPS, or a credit or debit card, you can indicate with that payment that you are also requesting an extension, so that you don't have to separately file form 4868. But in either case, you are notifying the IRS that you want an extension, which I would consider to be 'filing for an extension'. If you consider not having to separately file Form 4868 as 'not filing for an extension' even though you requested an extension when making a payment, then I guess you could say you don't have to 'file an extension'.

Also, is there anything to the "rumor" that filing later (either right around April 15 or at the extension deadline) rather than early reduces the chance of an audit due to how busy they are at those times?

Since audits don't generally occur until later than those filing dates (up to 3 years later, if no fraud is suspected), I really doubt that filing at/near the filing deadline has anything to do with being chosen (or not) for an audit. If anything, I would suspect that things that might drive an audit, like out of norm income or deductions, are more likely to be filed closer to the deadlines, rather than earlier in the season. That said, since the IRS is pretty close-mouthed about how they make their audit selections, when the return is filed could always be one of their criteria. Here is information on audits from the IRS:

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