WASHINGTON, D.C. — To help combat fraud by tax preparers, the Internal Revenue Service created the "Registered Tax Return Preparer" program. Then just before the tax season got under way, the agency was told by a federal judge that it doesn't have the authority to regulate the hundreds of thousands of tax preparers covered under the program.
Although some tax-return preparers are licensed by their states or enrolled to practice before the IRS, many don't have to pass a government or professionally mandated competency test to prepare a federal return. When the IRS issued its last "dirty dozen" tax scams, return preparer fraud was third on the list.
Crooked tax preparers can do some dastardly things.
"Tax return preparers sometimes alter return information without their clients' knowledge or consent in an attempt to obtain improperly inflated refunds or to divert refunds for their personal benefit," wrote Nina E. Olson, the national taxpayer advocate, in her most recent report to Congress. "Often, the refunds are directed to an account in the preparer's control."
In other instances, preparers lure clients by promising large refunds even before reviewing their tax information.
The IRS program would have required any individual who is compensated for preparing or assisting in the preparation of a return to obtain a preparer tax identification number, pass a qualifying exam and complete annual continuing-education requirements.
Three independent tax preparers joined the Institute for Justice in challenging the IRS' authority to create the program. Recently, Judge James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against the agency.
Said Dan Alban, the lead attorney on the case: "The licensing requirements harmed the ability of mom and pop operations to compete with big tax preparation firms. Two of the three plaintiffs would have been put out of business because of the cost of complying with the regulations."