Consumer Alert: Beware of criminal tax preparers! Here’s what to look for.

[anvplayer video=”5085746″ station=”998131″]

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Tax season is here. The IRS started accepting your returns this week. And that means tax scammers are working overtime.

I’ve been combing through information from IRS investigators. I was shocked by how many ways a fraudulent tax preparer can scam you. It was really eye-opening. Keep in mind, most tax preparers are professionals who provide a high-quality service. But the few bad apples can cost you a whole lot of money.

Tax filing is complicated. There’s your 1040. Schedule A to 1040, Schedule C to 1040, your 1099, 10-99 INT, 1099 G, 1099 MISC – an alphabet soup of letters and numbers that make your head spin. So you may decide to get help. But you have to make sure you’re getting the right help. I read stories about imposter preparers who stole money from the government and their clients by claiming folks owed money they didn’t, imaginary tax credits, and kids clients didn’t raise. So when preparers promise a big return before they’ve even seen your finances, that’s a big red flag.

With the help of the criminal investigation arm of the IRS, here’s Deanna’s Do List for finding a tax preparer.

  • Look for a preparer who’s available year-round.
  • Ask your preparer for their IRS PTIN, or Preparer Tax Identification Number. All paid preparers are required to have one. You can search for a professional preparer here.
  • Don’t use a preparer who is not willing to sign the return they prepare for you.
  • Never sign a blank return.
  • Your refund should be deposited in your account, not your preparer’s.
  • Report fraudulent tax preparers. You can do so here.

On that note, the IRS is facing a huge backlog from last tax season, so you may have to wait a while for your money. And it may be tempting to take out a tax refund loan in which your preparer or a third party gives you your tax refund immediately in the form of a loan, and you pay it back when you get your refund from the IRS.

Here’s the downside of those loans:

  • They could cost you in interest and fees.
  • Even when the loan is supposed to be no interest or fees, there may be other hidden fees like higher tax preparation fees or they put your money on a debit card that has hidden fees.
  • If your preparer miscalculates your refund and you get less than you anticipated, you’re still on the hook for that loan.

I realize there are situations where you need that money now. If you need to take out one of these loans, read the fine print. If they say no interest and fees, make sure that’s true. Click here for more information on the pros and cons of tax refund loans.