Tax Prep Nightmare: Don't Get Ripped Off by Your Tax Pro

Tax problems
Tax problems

We all know to expect occasional poor service. If you hire someone to prepare your taxes, for example, you know that there's a chance they might miss a deduction or credit you're eligible for. They might need to be nudged along by a phone call. But you certainly wouldn't expect your refunds to not arrive, or for the office to be shut down without notice.

Alas, that's the experience many people have been having with a tax-prep company called "Mo Money Taxes." The problem is so significant that the Better Business Bureau has issued a warning about the company, with the BBB of the Mid-South giving it its lowest rating, an F. (The company's offices in other parts of the country have received a range of ratings.)

The Complaints

Complaints about the company have been plentiful, and many are reportedly not being responded to or resolved. The BBB notes that the Arkansas Attorney General sued Mo Money in 2010 for not properly disclosing its fees. In cities such as Norfolk, Va., and Memphis, Tenn., police have shut down Mo Money offices and confiscated their computers. The U.S. Department of Justice has been asked to investigate.

Sponsored Links

What are some of these complaints? Well, some tax refunds due last month have yet to arrive. Some customers -- who trusted the company with their financial records, not to mention their Social Security numbers -- are finding their local offices closed. Many claim that the company didn't answer or return their phone calls. Some even allege that the company filed fraudulent tax returns. And while Mo Money has sometimes blamed the IRS for refund delays, when some customers checked with the IRS about that, they were informed that refunds had indeed been issued.

It's just a bad, bad scene.

What to Do

If you're not yet a customer of Mo Money Taxes, I suggest you don't become one. You can save yourself a world of headaches and possible financial losses that way. If you are one, or if you've had bad experiences with a different tax-prep outfit, know that you can file a complaint with the IRS.

If you'd like to check the status of a return filed by Mo Money or anyone else, you can do so at the IRS website.

Know that most taxpayers can expect the IRS to issue a refund within about 21 days -- and only 10 if the return was e-filed and a direct-deposit account listed.

Choose Your Tax Pro Carefully

Don't apply your caution too narrowly. Tax-prep folks other than Mo Money can give you trouble. Be smart about selecting who helps with your return and your experience (and possibly your refund) will be better for it. Here are some tips:

  • A new regulation requires all tax preparers who will file returns for customers to register with the IRS and receive a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN. Be sure anyone you deal with has a PTIN.

  • You also want to have some reassurance that the preparer knows his or her stuff. Check their credentials. You want someone who's a certified public accountant (CPA), an enrolled agent (which is what the initials "E.A." after their name will mean), or perhaps a tax attorney. Such folks typically are required to keep learning about tax developments. You can make sure they do indeed have these credentials by checking up on CPAs at your state's board of accountancy or the American Institute of CPAs, on enrolled agents at the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, and on tax attorneys at your state's bar association.

  • For even better odds of success, look for someone who has been in business for more than just a year or two, and favor those who belong to professional organizations. Ask for references, too -- ideally, gather them from people you know who have used the preparer.

  • Think of tax preparation as a year-round endeavor, not something you just think about every April. Ideally, you'll want to use a tax preparer who's in business all year long, so you can ask occasional questions to help in your tax planning. There are many strategic moves you can make throughout the year that can lower your bill in April.

  • Shop around. Compare the costs and services offered by several different preparers. You can locate some preparers near you via the website of the National Association of Tax Professionals.

  • Interview candidates a little, too (in person), to be sure you feel comfortable with them and will enjoy working with them. Find out who exactly will be preparing your return -- the person you're speaking with, or an underling? Inquire about their qualifications and accessibility. Ask what will happen if you're audited -- will the preparer represent you before the IRS? How long will it take to get your return done? It's a good sign if the preparer has some questions for you, too!

Take a little time choosing a tax pro carefully and you can make your tax season much more pleasant.

Longtime Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian holds no position in any company mentioned. You can follow Selena on Twitter @SelenaMaranjian.