Some tax preparers turn to fraud

The tax season ended in April for most of us, but some consumers’ tax headaches are only about to begin.

That’s because their tax preparer — without their knowledge — changed their return to boost the refund by thousands of dollars and pocketed the extra money. Taxpayers often find out about the fraud only months later when the IRS comes knocking to demand repayment.

Preparer return fraud has been around for years, but taxpayer advocates say the crime is growing. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson sent a memo this year to her staff across the country describing how to spot the fraud and help victims set things right with the IRS. In May, legislation was introduced in Congress to raise the penalty to at least $5,000 per return against preparers perpetrating such schemes.

“It’s a thriving fraud,” said Caroline Ciraolo, a Baltimore tax attorney who helps taxpayers in such cases.

Taxpayers can protect themselves by doing their own taxes or making sure their preparer is reputable.

Many times the perpetrators are small shops that appear only for tax season, said James Leith, the taxpayer advocate for Maryland.

“It’s typically the person that is open from January to April that can get away with altering returns and keeping the refunds,” Leith said.

The scheme works like this: The preparer fills out the return, which shows, say, a refund due of $2,000. The taxpayer reviews the return and signs it. But once the taxpayer leaves, the preparer revises the return, adding more deductions or credits so the refund is inflated to, say, $12,000.

Refunds now can be split and directly deposited in more than one account. This was designed to help taxpayers save part of their refund, but it also makes fraud easier.

All the preparer has to do is fill out a form and have the IRS send a portion of the refund into the taxpayer’s account and divert the rest into the preparer’s account. The taxpayer receives the expected amount and doesn’t suspect anything.

It’s not until the summer months that the IRS begins comparing information on the returns with documents supplied by outside sources. If there are discrepancies, the IRS might request more information.

Tax lawyers say sometimes the preparer changes the taxpayer’s address on the return, meaning that victims won’t get IRS notices and the fraud can go undetected for years.

That’s what happened to one of Ciraolo’s clients. The Maryland man faced an IRS criminal investigation two years ago because the preparer he used for years had falsified information on his returns and sometimes failed to file his taxes.

Ciraolo said her client would sign the returns and write a check to the preparer to cover the taxes he thought he owed, plus the fee for tax preparation. The preparer kept all that money and changed the man’s return so that it generated a refund for the preparer, she said.

Meanwhile, his returns caught the attention of the IRS. He was unaware of this because the preparer had changed his address on the return so that all IRS notices went to her, Ciraolo said. He only found out there was a problem when IRS special agents visited him.

Leith said his office can stop IRS enforcement actions, such as liens or wage garnishments to collect money that was erroneously paid out.

More difficult, he said, is getting the IRS to undertake the time-consuming task of correcting the taxpayer’s account.

If not corrected, that erroneous refund remains as an outstanding liability that accrues interest and penalties, Leith said.

The next time the taxpayer is due a refund, he said, the IRS will automatically apply that money to the liability.

Leith said taxpayer advocates sometimes must pull out the strongest tool in their arsenal — the taxpayer assistance order. This elevates the case by telling an IRS executive to correct the account, Leith said.

If you suspect a preparer revised your return behind your back, order a free transcript from the IRS at IRS.gov or 800-908-9946. The transcript will list the items on your return, including any refund.

“Just like folks tell you to check your credit report, you can ask for a transcript,” Leith said.

It would seem that you could avoid problems by watching the preparer electronically file your return to the IRS. But tax experts say those returns typically are not filed immediately.

Usually, returns undergo a second review for accuracy and then the electronic returns are filed in a batch to the IRS, said Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign, which provides free tax preparation for lower-income filers. Many victims of this fraud have low incomes, and these taxpayers are eligible for free tax preparation.

Marylanders should also check the Maryland Board of Individual Tax Preparer’s website to make sure the person they hire is registered, a new state requirement this year.

Last, never sign a return with blank lines that can be filled in later by a preparer, McKinney warned.