It's Tax Time again. Oh wait, maybe it isn't.
As I have previously mentioned, Mrs. Peaves works with underprivileged children. That has led her to befriend some of their parents. A few years ago she learned that most of them were being ripped off yearly by unscrupulous tax preparers. She asked me to help them by preparing their taxes for them. What I learned was shocking, but more on that later. Over the weekend, Mrs. Peaves talked me into (read: browbeat me into) doing her own taxes. When I was finished I learned something that did not make her happy. I learned that the IRS will not begin processing returns until January 31. After researching the delay, I learned it was a result of the government shutdown back in October. The IRS made the announcement soon after the shutdown was over, but I did not see the news at the time. It was probably in the business news, which I routinely ignore. Since learning of the delay Mrs. Peaves has been in a snit, and not because her own return won't be processed until the end of the month. Her concern is the poorest members of the community who are typically eager to get their hands on some quick cash. That desire plays right into the hands of tax prepares who offer immediate refunds. A little background. When I first started lending a hand to people with their taxes, I found that they had previously overpayed for someone to file for them. Few of these taxpayers had reason to file anything other than the simplest IRS form. Most had previously had their returns filed electronically by the preparers, a task that takes, on average, no more than 30 minutes, and often much less time. And yet they were charged upwards of $400. But the ripping off doesn't end there. Last year I prepared a tax return for one woman I'll call Beatrix Lestrange, obviously not her real name. She is a single mother of two young children with a low paying job. She is perpetually broke. When January of 2012 rolled around, the prospect of getting an instant refund sounded too good for her to pass up. She took all the needed paperwork to H&R Block and was soon fleeced for nearly $500 for preparing her return and then was issued her refund. But H&R Block didn't give Beatrix cash or a check, they gave her an H&R Block Emerald Prepaid Mastercard. With a name like Emerald, you'd think it was a gem. It was actually a turd. In 2008, the web site called The Emerald card the “Worst Tax Product Ever.” pointing out that “refund anticipation loans are bad news. Last year, despite our frequent warnings, nearly 9 million American taxpayers paid $900 million dollars in RAL expenses. The typical RAL only lasts 7-14 days according to the National Consumer Law Center, and carry APRs of up to 161 percent.” Get a load of some of the fees Beatrix was charged by H&R Block just for typical uses. She checked her balance, it cost a dollar. Each time she withdrew cash from an ATM it cost $2.50. But at least getting cash from an ATM was a bargain compared with the time she walked inside the bank, where a cash withdrawal from a teller cost her $25 dollars. Needless to say, a person as eager to get cash as Beatrix was didn't bother to read the fine print. The worst part: Ms. Lestrange lost her card. She had a replacement card expedited to her, not knowing the expedite would cost her $35 dollars. Thankfully, since last year, RALs have been largely discontinued, but they have been replaced with something just as bad: refund anticipation checks. Knowing many tales of woe, Mrs Peaves is concerned that, with the IRS setting back the start of processing, more people will be lured into an instant refund and subsequently be swindled out of their money with refund anticipation checks. Mrs. Peaves has managed to convince just a few low income taxpayers to be patient and keep a much greater portion of their refund by filing themselves or with the help of others. Thousands of others locally and millions nationally will not avoid being ripped off yet again this year. The delay will likely help lure more unfortunates than ever before. It makes my better half sad.