Free tax prep is available

The Internal Revenue Service headquarters building Washington, in 2013. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

It’s income tax filing season again, and while preparing one’s taxes is frequently aggravating, it doesn’t have to be awful, and many people can get free assistance in preparing their returns.

There are free taxpayer assistance sites throughout the tri-county Charleston area, and they are not just for people with low to moderate incomes. A married couple filing a joint return could have an adjusted gross income of up to $95,000 and still receive free help from Trident United Way, for example.

However, while income may not be a barrier, many of these organizations are not prepared to help people with complex tax returns that include things such as rental property income, or Schedule C business losses. When in doubt, call and ask.

Here are the largest networks offering taxpayer help, and how to find them:

Trident United Way and SC Thrive — this nonprofit collaboration offers in-person tax preparation to those with an adjusted gross income of $95,000 or less (filing jointly). The limit for single filers is $65,000.

To find Trident United Way tax prep help — locations, dates and times, and details — visit tuw.org/freetaxes or dial 211. Tax prep clinics are held at the Dorchester Prosperity Center, 222 Old Trolley Road, Summerville (843-282-6294), and the Berkeley Prosperity Center, 325 E. Main St., Moncks Corner (843-761-6033).

Additional locations, including many in Charleston County, can also be found on the TUW website by clicking the “free tax sites” button.

Those who want to prepare and file their taxes themselves, online, can do so free if their income is under $62,000, at unitedway.org/myfreetaxes. Visit the website or call 855-698-9435 for more information.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance — The VITA program offers free help, according to the IRS, “to people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities and limited English speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing.”

To find a local VITA tax prep site, go online to irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep or call 800-906-9887.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly — The Internal Revenue Service says TCE, with sites mainly operated by the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program, “offers free tax help for all taxpayers, particularly those who are 60 years of age and older.” The program specializes in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues. Assistance is provided by IRS-certified volunteers who “are often retired individuals associated with non-profit organizations that receive grants from the IRS.”

To find a site near you, use the same website and phone number as the VITA program (above), or look up AARP Tax Aide sites online at aarp.org or by calling 888-227-7669.

No matter where you go, you’ll need to gather up all your documents and tax forms ahead of time. Most of these programs list the forms and documents you would need to bring, on the websites mentioned above.

Whether you seek out tax help, do it yourself, or hire a tax preparer, be aware that tax season always brings out a flood of scammers looking to steal people’s personal information and possibly their tax refunds.

I’ve already seen plenty of fake IRS emails in my in-box, and fraud perpetrators are also known to call people and pretend to be from the IRS, sometimes making threats and demanding payments, and sometimes promising people are due for a big refund. It may sound incredible, but tens of millions of dollars have been lost to such fraud.

“Aggressive and threatening phone calls by criminals impersonating IRS agents remain a major threat to taxpayers,” the agency said in a fraud alert this month. If your receive such a call you can report it by calling 800-366-4484.

The IRS will not initiate contact with you through email seeking personal or financial information. You can report unsolicited email claiming to be from the IRS by emailing phishing@irs.gov.