The IRS’ Ten Tips for Choosing a Tax Preparer

It is cliché that the only thing certain in life is death and taxes. The other thing that death and taxes have in common is that both can be a bit frightening for some people. With taxes, at least, you can find help. There are many people that can assist you. If you know what you are doing, and you are comfortable doing your own taxes, you can even get free help from the IRS.

However, many people do not have simple tax situations, and they prefer the peace of mind that comes with hiring a professional. If that describes you, please know that there is not a lot of regulation of tax preparers. You want to be careful when you make your choice. The IRS published a list of tips for choosing a tax preparer. The article is from last year, but the advice is still good.

Here’s the list:

  1. Check the Preparer’s Qualifications.
  2. Check the Preparer’s History
  3. Ask about Service Fees.
  4. Ask to E-File. 
  5. Make Sure the Preparer is Available.
  6. Provide Records and Receipts.
  7. Never Sign a Blank Return.
  8. Review Before Signing.
  9. Ensure the Preparer Signs and Includes Their PTIN.
  10. Report Abusive Tax Preparers to the IRS.

You can read the details directly on the IRS website. The short version of the article is to check the preparer’s qualifications and make sure the prepare will be there after tax season, ask questions, provide documentation, efile and don’t sign blank returns. If you do come across a tax preparer that acts unprofessionally or unethically, report him or her to the IRS.

The first day to file your 2017 returns will be January 29, 2018 this year. You should wait to visit your tax professional until you have organized all of your documents. However, it is probably a good idea to go on and make an appointment now so that you will be at the front of the line. Good tax professionals are busy this time of year.


Is that phone call really from the IRS?

Short answer, “Not exactly.”

As a general rule, the IRS does not call taxpayers on the telephone. It does not initiate audits by phone, and it does not make collection calls. The IRS typically begins correspondence with taxpayers by regular mail (not email).

However, if you read my blog post yesterday, you know that this month the IRS is going to start using private debt collection firms. That may mean that taxpayers with accounts in collection may receive telephone calls. The four companies that the IRS has selected are

  • CBE Group – Cedar Falls, Iowa
  • Conserve – Fairport, N.Y.
  • Performant – Livermore, California
  • Pioneer – Horseheads, N.Y.

If you receive a telephone call about past due taxes from one of these companies, it is likely to be legitimate. However, you should always be suspicious of any unsolicited communication that asks for personal or financial information or demands payment.

The IRS has said that it will inform all taxpayers that are going to be transferred to a private collection agency, or PCA, in writing. The letter will also include a publication, Publication 4518, What You Can Expect When the IRS Assigns Your Account to a Private Collection Agency.

In Publication 4518, the IRS says that the PCA will send taxpayers a letter initiating their activity. The letter will include an authentication code.

How can I be sure it is the private collection agency calling me?

The private collection agency will send you a letter confirming assignment of your tax account. The letter will include the same unique taxpayer authentication number that is on the letter sent to you from the IRS. As part of the authentication process the PCA employee will use the unique number for identity verification. Keep both letters in a safe place for future reference.

Be sure to read the letter from the IRS and Publication 4518 very carefully so that you will be familiar with the collection process and can preserve your rights. You may also want to read Publication 594, The IRS Collection Process. You should also consult with a tax professional such as a CPA, Enrolled Agent (EA), or an attorney.

IRS Private Debt Collectors

Beginning this month the IRS is going to begin using private companies to collect debt. The IRS will assign taxpayer accounts to one of four private companies. The companies are:

  1. CBE Group – Cedar Falls, Iowa
  2. Conserve – Fairport, N.Y.
  3. Performant – Livermore, California
  4. Pioneer – Horseheads, N.Y.

Reportedly, the IRS will only assign taxpayer accounts to private collectors after multiple attempts to collect. The IRS describes the process as follows.

The IRS will always notify a taxpayer before transferring their account to a private collection agency (PCA). First, the IRS will send a letter to the taxpayer and their tax representative informing them that their account is being assigned to a PCA and giving the name and contact information for the PCA. This mailing will include a copy of Publication 4518, What You Can Expect When the IRS Assigns Your Account to a Private Collection Agency.

If you owe the IRS and you have not been responsive to collection efforts, you may want to be on the lookout for this correspondence from the IRS. Even if you don’t owe the IRS, you should be alert. Remember that a common scam is when someone impersonates the IRS or other official. This adds a new potential wrinkle. Scammers can now claim to be private collectors representing the IRS. In the past, this would have been an obvious red flag.

As always, if you have any doubts about tax-related correspondence, you should contact a professional. If you receive an unsolicited call or mail, do not give out personal information. Do not agree to anything, and do not provide banking or financial information. If you receive a suspicious letter, be sure to check it out using known addresses and telephone numbers before you respond.

Not ready to file your tax returns?

Don’t panic! You can request a six-month extension. There are many reasons that taxpayers may decide to file for an extension. The IRS recognizes that taxpayers may not have necessary documents. Contrary to what many people believe, requesting an extension does not put some sort of flag on your return. It does not increase the likelihood that you will be audited. If you cannot prepare your tax return and file it by the due date, request an extension.

Keep in mind that the extension gives you more time to file. It does not extend your deadline to pay. If you owe taxes, you should go on and pay them.

Filing an extension is easy. You can follow the instructions on the IRS web page, or if you have already spent the money on tax software, there should be a menu option that will let you prepare an extension and submit it by mail or e-file. If you are already working with a tax professional, then he or she has probably already advised you if you will need to request an extension.

IRS Dirty Dozen – Padding Deductions

Tempted to boost your tax refund by adding a few extra deductions or claiming some additional business expenses? Be careful. Padding deductions is another one of the IRS Dirty Dozen. Most taxpayers file honestly each year. However, there are also taxpayers that overstate deductions or claim credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Child Tax Credit when they are not entitled to do so. This is not to say that you should not take legitimate deductions. If you made large charitable contributions, then you should claim them.

The penalties for filing incorrect returns can be significant. They can include:

  • 20 percent of the disallowed amount for filing an erroneous claim for a refund or credit.
  • $5,000 if the IRS determines a taxpayer has filed a “frivolous tax return.” A frivolous tax return is one that does not include enough information to figure the correct tax or that contains information clearly showing that the tax reported is substantially incorrect.
  • In addition to the full amount of tax owed, a taxpayer could be assessed a penalty of 75 percent of the amount owed if the underpayment on the return resulted from tax fraud.

It is also possible to face criminal charges for filing a fraudulent return. This could mean additional penalties and even a time in prison.

What can you do to make sure you file an accurate return? Begin with your documents. If you have legitimate deductions, by all means take them. If you have business expenses, you should claim them. If you have any doubt about what is permissible, contact a tax professional such as a CPA, Enrolled Agent, or a tax attorney. The IRS also has plenty of information available on its website.




IRS Dirty Dozen – Preparer Fraud

Another one of the IRS Dirty Dozen is Preparer Fraud. The vast majority of tax preparers are honest. Sadly there are some preparers that take advantage of unsuspecting taxpayers. About 60 percent of taxpayers use professional tax preparers, so the opportunity for fraud is large. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says,

Choose your tax return preparer carefully because you entrust them with your private financial information that needs to be protected. Most preparers provide high-quality service but we run across cases each year where unscrupulous preparers steal from their clients and misfile their taxes.

One way to protect yourself is to check out your preparer. The IRS maintains a directory of preparers that are registered with the IRS. This includes:

  • Attorneys
  • CPAs
  • Enrolled Agents
  • Enrolled Retirement Plan Agents
  • Enrolled Actuaries
  • Annual Filing Season Program participants

You can also ask your preparer if he or she has a professional certification such as enrolled agent (EA), certified public account (CPA), or attorney. Preparers registered with the IRS also have a PTIN which is a registration number.

A few things that you can do to protect yourself include reviewing your return before it is filed. You should also never sign a blank return. If you are the victim of an unscrupulous preparer, you should report him or her to the IRS.

Check out the IRS’ press release for more details about this Dirty Dozen Scam.

IRS Dirty Dozen – Inflated Refunds

Every year, the IRS compiles a list of tax-related scams called the Dirty Dozen. I’ll highlight the scams over the next couple of weeks. One of the Dirty Dozen this year is falsely inflated refunds. While this sounds like something a taxpayer might do by claiming unwarranted exemptions, deductions, or credits, the scam is actually related to unscrupulous preparers. The IRS Commissioner reports:

Exercise caution when a return preparer promises an extremely large refund or one based on credits or benefits you’ve never been able to claim before. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The best way to protect yourself is to make sure that you use a legitimate tax preparer. You can check out my blog post for an IRS video about how to choose a tax preparer.

Another thing that you can do is to be sure that the preparer that you use has the proper licensing or credentials. These credentials include:

  • Attorneys
  • CPAs
  • Enrolled Agents
  • Enrolled Retirement Plan Agents
  • Enrolled Actuaries
  • Annual Filing Season Program participants

The IRS maintains a page with guidance for choosing a tax professional.

Keep in mind that whether you prepare your tax filings yourself or use a professional, you are still responsible for the return. Always review your return, and avoid these potential problems:

  • Under reported or unreported income
  • Questionable tax positions
  • Claiming excess exemptions
  • Deductions or credits without proper documentation

Remember the statement by the IRS Commissioner, “If it sounds too good to be true . . .”


IRS Dirty Dozen – Fake Charities

Every year, the IRS compiles a list of tax-related scams called the Dirty Dozen. I’ll highlight the scams over the next couple of weeks. One of the Dirty Dozen this year is fake charities. The IRS commissioner reports:

Fake charities set up by scam artists to steal your money or personal information are a recurring problem. Taxpayers should take the time to research organizations before giving their hard-earned money.

The IRS offers these tips if you make charitable contributions.

  • Be wary of charities with names that are similar to familiar or nationally known organizations. Some phony charities use names or websites that sound or look like those of respected, legitimate organizations. has a search feature, Exempt Organizations Select Check, which allows people to find legitimate, qualified charities to which donations may be tax-deductible. Legitimate charities will provide their Employer Identification Numbers (EIN), if requested, which can be used to verify their legitimacy through EO Select Check. It is advisable to double check using a charity’s EIN.
  • Don’t give out personal financial information, such as Social Security numbers or passwords, to anyone who solicits a contribution. Scam artists may use this information to steal identities and money from victims. Donors often use credit cards to make donations. Be cautious when disclosing credit card numbers. Confirm that those soliciting a donation are calling from a legitimate charity.
  • Don’t give or send cash. For security and tax record purposes, contribute by check or credit card or another way that provides documentation of the gift.

The IRS also notes that many people are defrauded by fake charities following disasters.

The scams work several ways. The most common is to persuade unsuspecting individuals to donate to bogus charities. Another is to use the appeal as a way to collect personal information that can be used for identity theft.

Please do not be dissuaded from continuing to contribute to worthy causes. However, be aware of the potential for fraud and be vigilant. There are resources to help you make good decisions about charitable contributions under the Resources tab on