The Internal Revenue Service today reminded taxpayers to choose a tax return preparer with care. Even though most tax return preparers provide honest, quality service, some may cause harm through fraud, identity theft and other scams.

When hiring an individual or firm to prepare a tax return, filers need to understand who they’re choosing and what important questions to ask.

A taxpayer’s needs will determine which kind of preparer is best for them. Whether taxpayers regularly use a tax professional to help them file a tax return or have decided to work with one for the first time, choosing a tax professional carefully is important. Taxpayers are ultimately responsible for all the information on their income tax return, regardless of who prepares the return.

When choosing a tax professional, the IRS urges taxpayers to visit IRS.gov. The Choosing a Tax Professional page on IRS.gov has information about tax return preparer credentials and qualifications. The IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers with Credentials and Select Qualifications can help identify many preparers by type of credential or qualification.

Warning signs
By law, anyone who is paid to prepare or assists in preparing federal tax returns must have a valid Preparer Tax Identification Number. Paid preparers must sign and include their PTIN on any tax return they prepare.

Not signing a return is a red flag that the paid preparer may be looking to make a quick profit by promising a big refund or charging fees based on the size of the refund. Taxpayers should avoid these unethical “ghost” tax return preparers.

A ghost preparer is someone who doesn’t sign tax returns they prepare. Unscrupulous ghost preparers often print the return and have the taxpayer sign and mail it to the IRS. For electronically filed returns, a ghost preparer will prepare the tax return but refuse to digitally sign it as the paid preparer.

Tips for selecting a tax return preparer
Here are a few tips to consider when choosing a tax return preparer:

  • Look for a preparer who’s available year-round. If questions come up about a tax return, taxpayers may need to contact the preparer after the filing season is over.
  • Review the preparer’s history. Check the Better Business Bureau website for information about the preparer. Look for disciplinary actions and the license status for credentialed preparers. For CPAs, check the State Board of Accountancy’s website, and for attorneys check with the State Bar Association. For enrolled agents go to IRS.gov and search for “verify enrolled agent status” or check the IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers.
  • Ask about service fees. Taxpayers should avoid tax return preparers who base their fees on a percentage of the refund or who offer to deposit all or part of the refund into their own financial accounts. Be wary of tax return preparers who claim they can get larger refunds than their competitors.
  • Ensure their preparer offers IRS e-file. The IRS issues most refunds in fewer than 21 days for taxpayers who file electronically and choose direct deposit
  • Provide records and receipts. Good preparers ask to see these documents. They’ll also ask questions to determine the client’s total income, deductions, tax credits and other items. Do not hire a preparer who e-files a tax return using a pay stub instead of a Form W-2. This is against IRS e-file rules.
  • Understand the preparer’s credentials and qualifications. Attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents can represent any client before the IRS in any situation. Annual Filing Season Program participants may represent taxpayers in limited situations if they prepared and signed the tax return.
  • Never sign a blank or incomplete return. Taxpayers are responsible for filing a complete and correct tax return.
  • Review the tax return before signing it. Be sure to ask questions if something is not clear or appears inaccurate. Any refund should go directly to the taxpayer – not into the preparer’s bank account. Review the routing and bank account number on the completed return and make sure it’s accurate.

Taxpayers can report preparer misconduct to the IRS using Form 14157, Complaint: Tax Return Preparer. If a taxpayer suspects a tax return preparer filed or changed their tax return without their consent, they should file Form 14157-A, Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit.