RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With tax time looming, no question preparing your taxes can be daunting. And for low-income Americans, those living on the margins, paying a tax preparation fee can be a huge burden, whereas taxpayers desperate for cash can fall prey to high cost loan offers that involve refunds. NPR's Pam Fessler begins today's Bottom Line in Business at a place that offers free help.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The free tax preparation site at the main library in Washington D.C. is fairly typical - about 30 taxpayers waiting for help from volunteers. Millicent Gamble is hoping for a big refund this year.
MILLICENT GAMBLE: I have a good feeling something good is going to happen to me. Thank you, Jesus.
FESSLER: Last year, the retired hotel worker got more than $1,000 back from the government. She already knows how she wants to use this year's check.
GAMBLE: To pay my rent and, you know, maybe take care of some doctor's bills and so forth.
FESSLER: It seems almost everyone here plans to use their refunds, if they get them, for basic expenses.
Teresa Hinze is with Community Tax Aid, the non-profit group that provides this free tax help in collaboration with the IRS. She says their clients' average income is about $17,000 a year.
TERESA HINZE: They don't have the money to pay tax preparation fees.
FESSLER: But she says some people who should don't come here for help. They're either unaware it's available or need some quick cash. They turn instead to private preparers or other programs that offer short-term loans, in advance of getting their money back from the government. Hinze says it can be a risky move.
HINZE: The average fee in this area is around 170 to $200. And we had a woman a couple of years ago who paid $900.
FESSLER: But she didn't realize it because the fee was deducted from her refund.
Chi Chi Wu, with the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says there are plenty of pitfalls out there for desperate low-income taxpayers. She says this year, the good news is that regulators have stopped banks from offering something called Refund Anticipation Loans. These loans charge taxpayers exorbitant fees to borrow against their expected refund. She says the bad news is that they've been replaced with something else.
CHI CHI WU: It's called the Refund Anticipation Check. It's kind of like a cousin of the Refund Anticipation Loan.
FESSLER: Instead of borrowing the whole refund amount, individuals can pay extra to have their tax preparation fee delayed and deducted from their refund. A typical charge might be only $30, but Wu says paying that to effectively borrow a $200 tax preparation fee can be costly.
WU: If you calculate that out at as an annualized percentage rate, an APR, that's the equivalent of 260 percent.
FESSLER: Companies that offer such services say they help those who can't pay the tax preparation fee up front. But consumer advocates say all these things chip away at the refunds of those who can least afford it. Wu also warns that while banks no longer offer Refund Anticipation Loans, payday lenders and others are stepping into the void, which can be even riskier.
I wanted to see for myself, so I decided to go online and do a quick word search.
How about, tax, refund loan? Within seconds, the screen is filled with offers. I click on one and there is a flashing sign that says: Get Cash Now. Underneath, it reads: Tax refunds loans are available now. Just apply above and receive an approval within just 90 seconds. That sounds pretty attractive.
Although the site does want some personal information, like my bank account, bank routing and Social Security Numbers. I decide to go with some made-up ones to see what happens. And lo and behold, in just over a minute, I get a message that I've been pre-approved for a one-week loan of up to $750. But then there's the fine print.
The annual percentage rate is 1,368.75 percent. Wow.
It's really just a payday loan - prohibited in some states, but not all.
Chi Chi Wu says you also don't know who's getting your personal financial information. It could be a scam. Her advice: Find a free tax preparation site. There are 13,000 across the country. The IRS also offers free online filing for low-income taxpayers.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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