In 2011, the IRS began a new tax preparer oversight program. Now in order to file a return for a client, the preparer must register with the agency and receive a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN.
Eventually, the IRS will require registered preparers to pass a competency exam.
So your first vetting step is making sure the tax preparer you hire has a PTIN.
The easiest way to ensure you have a reputable preparer is to get one who is accredited, says Cindy Hockenberry, an enrolled agent and spokeswoman for the National Association of Tax Professionals.
Look for a certified public accountant, an enrolled agent or a tax attorney.
"Typically, these preparers are required to maintain continuing education credits to maintain their designation," Hockenberry says. "This is a real plus for the taxpayers because they will have some additional security knowing the preparer they chose is up to date on the latest tax law changes."
Dig a little deeper
Once you locate a preparer with good credentials, dig a little deeper into his background. Find out how long he or she has been in the tax preparation business, Hockenberry says, and what services are provided.
In addition, find out if the preparer belongs to any professional organizations. "This indicates a dedication to their chosen profession," Hockenberry says.
Rely on references
References are easiest to check when you use a preparer recommended by family and friends. If you select someone totally new to you, don't be afraid to ask for references and follow up with them to see if they are satisfied with the service.
Hockenberry also recommends checking the preparer's fee before any work is done. "This will eliminate any surprises when you go to pick up your return," she says, "and will also tell you if the preparer overcharges in comparison to other preparers in your geographic location."
Because tax issues can pop up anytime, find a preparer who will be around, with regular office hours, after the April deadline. "There is nothing more frustrating for a taxpayer than when he or she cannot reach the preparer during the year," Hockenberry says.
Most of the large tax preparation firms have websites detailing franchise locations and operation hours. If you decide to use an independent preparer, you can search the National Association of Tax Professionals' member database by ZIP code to find a tax preparer near you.
You also can find out more about the types of tax-filing services available in Bankrate's "Your tax preparer choices."