Consumer groups call for tax pro oversight

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We’re well into the 2015 tax filing season, and while millions have successfully completed this annual task, millions more are still struggling with their Internal Revenue Service forms.

If you’re among the still-working group and your frustration is growing, you might decide to simply chuck it all and turn your taxes over to a paid preparer.

That could be a fine idea, as long as you hire a qualified and reputable tax professional.

Unfortunately, many consumers are at risk from incompetent preparers or preparers who commit fraud, according to a couple of national consumer advocacy groups.

No regs means potential abuse

The lack of comprehensive, consolidated oversight of paid tax preparers is the biggest consumer tax problem, according to the latest annual tax-time report issued by the National Consumer Law Center and Consumer Federation of America.

“Tens of millions of consumers will use paid tax preparers to fill out their most important financial document of the year, yet most of these preparers are not subject to any minimum educational, training or competency standards,” says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.

The 2015 study says that this lack of minimum standards puts taxpayers at risk from incompetent or criminal preparers. In addition to losing money, taxpayers also could face audit or even criminal sanctions by the IRS based on the bad or fraudulent returns filed by questionable preparers.

Remember, even if you hire someone to do your taxes, when you sign the return, either with pen to paper or an e-signature on an electronically submitted return, you are taking full responsibility for what’s on that filing.

On states’ shoulders

“With the 2014 court decision striking down the IRS rules requiring preparers to pass an exam and complete continuing education requirements, states need to develop minimum competency and educational requirements,” says Michael Best, policy advocate at the Consumer Federation of America.

Currently, only four states regulate tax preparers. They are Maryland, Oregon, California and New York. “We need to work to expand that number so that taxpayers are protected from fraud and abuse,” says Best.

Governments lose, too

And it’s not just individuals who suffer from inept or crooked tax preparers.

Incompetence and fraud also could be costing federal and state governments tens of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, according to the latest report entitled, “Taxpayer Beware: Unregulated Tax Preparers and Tax-Time Financial Products Put Taxpayers at Risk.”

Other taxpayer risks

In addition to tax preparer concerns, the report cites a couple of other critical taxpayer problems.

Many individuals, according to the report, pay needless fees for financial products. Paid preparers offer and promote financial products that can be unnecessary and expensive, such as refund anticipation checks, or RACs. These quick cash options based on expected tax refund amounts have in large part replaced refund anticipation loans, or RALs, but are just as costly. In addition to the $25 to $60 fee charged by lenders that offer RACs, the study says preparers sometimes also charge their own add-on fees for these financial products.

Taxpayers also are hampered by an inability to comparison shop for tax preparation fees, according to the National Consumer Law Center and Consumer Federation of America. Paid preparers often either decline to give price quotes for preparation services or give wildly inaccurate estimates.

Taxpayer self-protection

Without national standards, it’s up to you to ensure that you hire a quality tax professional. Bankrate offers some suggestions on how to check out your tax preparer.

The IRS also has created an online tax preparer directory. The searchable database contains listings for preparers who have met the agency’s new Annual Filing Season Program standards, as well as attorneys, CPAs, enrolled agents, enrolled retirement plan agents and enrolled actuaries with a valid IRS preparer tax identification number, or PTIN.

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Veteran contributing editor Kay Bell is the author of the book “The Truth About Paying Fewer Taxes” and co-author of the e-book “Future Millionaires’ Guidebook.”