The continuing downturn in the economy means that many cash-strapped Americans are anxiously looking forward to receiving a tax refund check from Uncle Sam. During this tax season, Better Business Bureau advises taxpayers to be on the lookout for schemes and scams that plague families struggling to make ends meet.
Jobless claims in January reached the highest level since 1982 in the U.S. as more than 2.6 million jobs were cut in 2008. With more families facing financial hardship, the promise of a tax refund is a welcome sight. Unfortunately, some schemes tied to the tax season will leave consumers even worse off in these tough economic times.
“In a declining economy, a tax refund can provide much-needed cash for families enduring financial hardship,” said Steve Cox, BBB spokesperson. “As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes,’ but consumers can also be certain that where there are taxes there will be tax scams, and BBB is advising people to be extremely wary of tax-related schemes that will cost them unnecessarily at a time when they can least afford it.”
Beware Tax Reduction Schemes
Some companies claim that they can help consumers reduce the amount of money they owe in taxes or fines to the government. These claims often sound too good to be true and TV ads might include endorsements from customers who state the company worked with the IRS on their behalf and was able to reduce the amount owed to pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, BBB has heard from consumers who paid thousands of dollars to such companies and were devastated to learn that the company didn’t keep its promise to reduce the amount owed and, in some cases, never even contacted the IRS.
BBB Advises: For consumers who have a tax debt with the IRS, BBB suggests first seeking the advice of an IRS enrolled agent, Certified Public Accountant (CPA), or a tax attorney to determine if they qualify to file for an offer in compromise, or some other type of payment arrangement.
While the IRS will work directly with the taxpayer and negotiate an offer in compromise—which essentially reduces the taxpayer’s debt—the taxpayer has to demonstrate that he or she is in extreme financial hardship. The Web site, www.irs.gov, has more information on the IRS’s rules for an offer in compromise. Another option is to create an installment plan for paying off the debt—which can be set up between the taxpayer and the IRS without the need to pay a company thousands of dollars. Each year, the IRS accepts about three million installment agreements.
If a taxpayer does decide to enlist outside help when dealing with the IRS, he or she should be wary of exaggerated claims and large upfront fees, and always check out the business’s report with BBB at www.bbb.org
Read more BBB guidance on Tax Scams and Schemes.
Just say No to Refund Anticipation Loans
Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs) are cash advances offered by a tax preparer based on a taxpayer’s anticipated refund. Anyone who relies on a RAL is essentially paying to borrow their own money. Despite the fact that the loan is extremely low-risk for the tax preparer, the rates can be extremely high for the borrower. The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) found that the effective annualized rate for a RAL can range from about 50 percent to nearly 500 percent.
BBB Advises: The fastest and most secure way for consumers to get their refund is to file their taxes online and then allow a direct deposit of the refund into their bank account. Taxpayers can have the money in as little as 8 to 15 days. If a consumer absolutely must take out a RAL, BBB advises shopping around because rates and restrictions vary by preparer.
Read more BBB advice on RALs
Don’t Take the Bait on Phishing E-mails
While phishing e-mails strike consumers regardless of their financial status, in a tough economy, families literally cannot afford to fall victim to this common scam. Phishing e-mails around tax time usually tell the recipient that there’s an issue with their refund, that they are being audited or that there is a problem preventing their taxes from being processed. In most cases, the fraudulent e-mail will provide a hyperlink directing potential victims to a Web site set up by the scammers, where victims are asked for Social Security numbers, bank account information or credit card numbers. And in some cases, these illicit sites are designed to automatically install viruses and malware on the victim’s computer to steal personal information without the victim even knowing what has happened.
BBB Advises: Many tax-related e-mail phishing scams are run by people and organizations operating outside the United States, and their e-mails are often rife with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Bear in mind that if the IRS has questions or concerns with a tax return, they typically contact the taxpayer by mail, not e-mail.
Those who have received a questionable e-mail claiming to come from the IRS may forward it to a mailbox the IRS has established to receive such e-mails at, email@example.com.
Read more BBB advice on phishing scams.
For more trustworthy advice from your BBB on being a savvy consumer and navigating the 2009 tax season go to www.bbb.org.