Monday, December 15, 2014


In 2006 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sent undercover operatives to 19 “commercial preparer” branch offices in a major metropolitan area posing as taxpayers looking to have their tax returns prepared.  Errors were identified in 19 of the 19 completed federal returns, some “significant”.  The GAO published the results of the undercover operation in “Paid Tax Return Preparers: In a Limited Study, Chain Preparers Made Serious Errors” (GAO-06-563T).  It is believed that this study started the ball rolling on what led to the IRS initiation of the now-dead mandatory RTRP tax preparer regulation program.

In 2014 the GAO did it again -

We had tax returns prepared for us at 19 randomly selected locations of several commercial preparers throughout a major metropolitan area.  We chose the major metropolitan area based on the criteria such as (1) location in a state that does not regulate paid preparers, (2) presence of multiple commercial preparers, and (3) location in a state that does not levy an income tax.  Our investigators posed as taxpayers and asked paid preparers to prepare, but allow us to file, our federal tax returns under one of two scenarios, as described later in this testimony {a “waitress scenario” and a “mechanic scenario” – rdf}.  The two scenarios incorporated a range of commonly used IRS forms and lines on the Form 1040.”

Once again the GAO again found “significant” preparer errors -
Refund errors in the site visits varied from giving the taxpayer $52 less to $3,718 more than the correct refund amount”.  However in this investigation “2 of 10 preparers calculated the correct refund amount”. 

The GAO found –

The quality and accuracy of tax preparation varied.  Seventeen of 19 preparers completed the correct type of tax return.  However, common errors included

·      not reporting non-Form W-2 income (e.g. cash tips) in 12 of 19 site visits;
·      claiming an ineligible child for the Earned Income Tax Credit in 3 of 10 site visits where applicable;
·      not asking the required eligibility questions for the American Opportunity Tax Credit; and
·      not providing an accurate preparer tax identification number.”

As a result of the operation the GAO issued the report “Paid Tax Return Preparers: In a Limited Study, Preparers Made Significant Errors”.

The report also indicates –

The fees charged for tax preparation services varied widely across the 19 visits, sometimes between offices affiliated with the same chain.”

Elaborating –

For the waitress scenario, the final fees charged for tax preparation ranged from $160 to $408.  For the mechanic scenario, the final fees charged for tax preparation ranged from $300 to $587.  For the two correct tax returns that were prepared, the final fee charged was $260 for the waitress scenario and $311 for the mechanic scenario.”  

What is significant about these two almost identical operations?  The paid preparers who were visited were “commercial preparers”.  The term “Commercial Preparers” is actually in the title of the first report.  And in the current report the GAO explained (the highlight is mine) –

We visited commercial paid preparers with 10 or more locations.  We did not visit any law firms, Certified Public Accountant (CPA) firms, or single-office tax return preparation businesses.”

Who are “commercial preparers” with multiple locations?  H&R Block, Liberty Tax Service, and Jackson Hewitt Tax Service – to name the biggest three.

The GAO report admitted (as usual, the highlight is mine) –

Because our 19 site visits are limited in size, results cannot be used to generalize our findings to the retail tax preparation industry.”

The results have absolutely no application to the “unenrolled” independent “single-office” tax preparer, like for example me.  They can only be applied to the multi-location “commercial tax preparer” community.

It comes as no surprise to me that (1) the preparers employed by Henry and Richard and others of their ilk frequently make serious and significant errors (my mentor had always wished an H&R Block office would move next door to us because we could make tons of money amending H&R prepared returns to fix their FUs) and (2) the fees charged by Henry and Richard and others of their ilk are high and erratic.

When the GAO made a presentation on the 2006 study at the IRS Nationwide Forum I asked the presenter if any of the 19 tax preparers visited had asked the undercover client for a copy of their prior year’s tax return?  When I was accepting new clients, the first thing I asked a newbie was to give me copies of their last 3 tax returns, as, I expect, do most if not all of my fellow independent “single-office” preparers.  The answer I was given was “no”.  None of the commercial preparers visited had asked to see a prior return.  
I emailed the same question to James R. McTigue, Jr, the GAO Director of Strategic Issues, and he responded -
Thank you for your interest and question.  I checked with my staff and this is not something that we specifically tracked.  Based only on their recollection a few may have asked for it, but we simply stated we didn’t have it.  This was not a problem for us in obtaining service.” 
As I posted about the 2006 operation here back in January of 2007 –

The GAO agents also discovered unethical sales practices related to Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs). The annualized interest rate for the RALs offered to the ‘taxpayers’ ranged from 380% to 470%.”  

Thankfully H&R, etc. no longer offer usurious RALs.

The GAO recommends –

If Congress agrees that significant preparer errors exist, it should consider legislation granting IRS the authority to regulate paid tax preparers.”

I do not concur (for one thing, the statement “if Congress agrees” precludes any such legislation – the idiots cannot agree on anything).  Mandatory regulation of paid tax preparers is not the answer.

My recommendation is for taxpayers.  It is nothing new - I have been saying it for years.  Do not go to Henry and Richard, Liberty, Jackson Hewitt, or any other “fast food” preparation chain to have your tax returns prepared.  Choose instead an independent “single-office” tax professional, “enrolled” or not.

For information and resources on how to find a tax preparer go to my website FIND A TAX PROFESSIONAL.


No comments: