The Better Business Bureau’s Kelvin Collins offers tips on picking a trustworthy tax preparer.

Most people get help filing their taxes, either from computer software or a professional tax preparer. But horror stories in the media about tax service rip-offs and scams have some consumers concerned about who they can trust with their financial data and private information.

A paid tax preparer is primarily responsible for the overall, substantive accuracy of your tax return. If there is a problem with your return, or you are audited by the Internal Revenue Service, the tax preparer can help you address the issue and can often represent you. The preparer is required to sign your tax forms (paper or electronic) and provide their IRS-assigned preparer tax identification number, or PTIN.

The Better Business Bureau advises taxpayers to be extra cautious when choosing a tax preparer, because that person or company will have access to your personally identifiable information. Here are some BBB tips to help you find a preparer you can trust.

• Get Referrals. Start by asking friends and family for recommendations, then check BBB Business Reviews at bbb.org. Look beyond the letter grade; complaint details and customer reviews will tell you about others’ experiences.

• Make sure they are properly registered. A tax preparer must obtain a PTIN from the IRS. Never let someone work on your taxes unless they have this number. Don’t be afraid to ask about this or other qualifications; a capable professional does not mind questions.

• Look for credentials. Some preparers have more training and qualifications than others. Enrolled agents, certified public accountants and attorneys have unlimited rights to represent their clients to the IRS on all matters. Other preparers can help you with forms and simple IRS matters, but are limited otherwise, and they can’t help you if they didn’t prepare your form. Learn more about preparer credentials on the IRS website.

• Keep a watchful eye for promises. Be wary of any tax-preparation service that promises larger refunds than competitors, and avoid preparers who base their fee on a percentage of the refund. Also be wary of “refund anticipation loans,” which can take a hefty chunk of your refund in commission. Refunds are processed quickly these days, so it’s a better bet to just wait rather than pay a premium to get it now.

• Search for free tax programs. There are several free government programs that prepare taxes free of charge if you meet an income requirement; go to the IRS’s Free File page for more information. Most will also file your state return as well. If not, check with your state’s Department of Revenue to find out about their programs.

• Tax Software and Apps. If you plan to file yourself, use tax software or an app that provides both excellent data security and good customer service. Some of the top names in tax-prep software are BBB Accredited Businesses, so check with BBB.org first.

• New tax laws can create confusion that dishonest preparers will capitalize on, so taxpayers should always review their return before signing and ask questions on entries they do not understand. Also be sure to get a copy of the return for your records. Finally, do not ever sign a blank tax form or one filled out in pencil!

Kelvin Collins is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving the Fall Line Corridor, which includes the Augusta-Aiken metro area. Direct questions or complaints about a specific company or charity to (800) 763-4222 or [email protected]

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