By Michelle Singletary | February 06, 2016
WASHINGTON — Hire an honest tax preparer.
I know. This sounds like obvious advice, but there are a lot of schemers out there looking to help you boost your tax refund in ways that could cause you serious financial — or legal — trouble down the road.
Or, if you don’t do your homework, you could end up with a preparer looking to maximize his or her fees by pushing products you don’t need.
I’ll throw this in for free before I talk more about finding a good preparer. Please don’t get any type of refund loan, advance refund check — or whatever the product might be called — that promises you a quicker refund. Even the overwhelmed, understaffed IRS says it delivers 90 percent of refunds in less than 21 days when people electronically file and select direct deposit. The money you spend for a faster refund can surely be better used.
As for your preparer, choose wisely because even if you don’t condone any shady behavior when it comes to your return, you are ultimately responsible for the information on it.
The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and the Consumer Federation of America again this year issued a consumer advisory about the things that can happen when using a paid preparer.
The advocacy groups point out that only four states — California, Oregon, Maryland, and New York — mandate that independent tax preparers meet specific requirements. And mystery-shopper testing in Florida and North Carolina last year found errors in 27 out of 29 tax returns prepared by paid preparers.
The results were similar to what the Government Accountability Office found when it sent undercover investigators to tax preparer offices: Only two of 19 returns had the correct refund amount. The GAO said in a 2014 report that refund errors ranged from a $52 underpayment to a taxpayer to a $3,718 overpayment.
“There’s a minefield of dangers for the tens of millions of consumers who use paid tax preparers to fill out their most important financial document of the year,” said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the NCLC.
So where can you start a search for a preparer?
Plenty of preparers are attorneys, certified public accountants or approved by the IRS as enrolled agents. The IRS has a directory of federal tax return preparers with certain credentials. Go to http://irs.treasury.gov/rpo/rpo.jsf. Or, in the search field at irs.gov, type in “Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers with Credentials and Select Qualifications.”
You can search for various tax professionals, including attorneys, CPAs, and what the IRS calls “annual filing season program participants.” The people in the latter category voluntarily obtain 18 hours of continuing education, including two hours covering ethics.
The IRS directory isn’t an endorsement of any preparer, but at least you know the folks in this database have had some training.
One thing to keep in mind: Paid tax preparers must have a “Preparer Tax Identification Number” or PTIN. They have to sign your return as a preparer and include their PTIN. Ask about the PTIN upfront.
If you do hire someone, watch the fees. Stay clear of preparers who base their fees on a percentage of your refund. And certainly walk away from anyone encouraging you to lie about anything.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax preparation to people with disabilities, the elderly, and folks who generally make $54,000 or less. Volunteers also assist non-English-speaking taxpayers.
Low- to moderate-income taxpayers can get free tax help from the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), which focuses on helping people 60 and older with retirement and pension tax-related issues. Call 800-906-9887 to locate a VITA or TCE site. Free help is also available at AARP Foundation Tax-Aide sites. Call 888-227-7669 or go to AARP.org/findtaxhelp to find a nearby location.
Additionally, there is the IRS Free File program — a partnership between the agency and the Free File Alliance, a group of 13 private preparers who have agreed to make their federal tax return products available for free to taxpayers whose adjusted gross income was $62,000 or less in 2015. Free File is available only at IRS.gov/FreeFile.
I get that you don’t want to be bothered with calling around or vetting people to do your simple tax return. You just need your taxes done. You want your refund as fast as possible. But don’t risk issues with the IRS. The IRS doesn’t play. The tools they have to come after you are plenty powerful.
So take the time to find a good preparer. Too much is at stake.