Avoiding problems when paying taxes

The time and energy spent filling out paperwork can make tax time stressful. Depending on how you file, tax time can also be expensive. If you have questions about filing your taxes, consider our time and money-saving tips. 

Q: How do I file my taxes?

The easiest and fastest way to file your taxes is through the IRS website. The site links to many companies that will efile your federal tax return for free. Some of these services require payment for filing state taxes. 

You can also file by mail. Download the forms from the IRS website or get them from your local library branch. You'll need the Form 1040, 1040EZ, or 1040A depending on the complexity of your return.

Q. Can I get free help to file my taxes?

Yes! If you made $57,000 or less, you may use one of the free efile services available through the IRS website. Many states support free efiling through the state's department of revenue website.

The IRS also sponsors free tax preparation services through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Call 1-800-906-9887 to find a VITA site near you, and make sure your tax preparer is accredited by the IRS or your state department of revenue.

The IRS has free tools and a Frequently Asked Questions guide online. You can also call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 for individual returns, and 1-800-829-4933 for business returns.

Q. If I make more than $57,000, can I file for free?

Yes. Search online for "free tax preparation" to find Internet-based and volunteer services.

Q. If I pay someone to do my taxes, what should I watch out for?

You could be dealing with an unscrupulous return preparer if they:

  • Do not sign or do not include their Preparer Tax Identification Number on your return.
  • Do not give you a copy of your tax return.
  • Promise a larger than normal tax refund.
  • Charge a percentage of the refund amount as a preparation fee (there should be a flat fee).
  • Add forms to the return you have never filed before.
  • Encourage you to place false information on your return, such as false income, expenses and/or credits.

Q. What are the “instant” tax rebates I see offered?

In reality, there is no way to immediately receive your refund from the IRS. "Instant" refunds offered by some tax services are often Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs). Although they may seem appealing, RALs have large fees and interest rates of up to 37%. Advertisements for RALs must accurately list all associated costs and services charges, as well as the charges for tax preparation and electronic filing.

Q. What is the fastest way to get my tax refund?

Select direct deposit when you efile online. You can track the status of your tax return on the IRS website

Q. I received an email from the IRS, asking for personal information. Is it real?

No; the IRS does not initiate email correspondence with taxpayers. Identity thieves often send official-looking, fake emails informing recipients that they must click on a link that takes them to a website asking for their personal information. All such requests are phishing scams. Report suspected phishing to the IRS

Q. How can I avoid an identity theft tax scam?

There are several warning signs:

  1. Beware email attachments, because legitimate tax companies will rarely ask you to open one.
  2. Emails that mention a tax refund or threaten an audit are often fraudulent attempts to obtain your personal information.
  3. Misspellings, incorrect use of official names, poor grammar, and odd phrasing are indications that a communication is fraudulent.
  4. Taxpayers should ignore unsolicited communications asking for personal and/or financial information, e.g. your name, Social Security Number, bank account number, or credit card number.

Q. How do I know if I am a victim of identity theft?

If multiple tax returns have been filed in your name or the IRS believes you were paid by an employer whom you aren’t familiar with, someone may have used your personal information to submit false tax returns. 

Q. What should I do if I think my identity has been stolen?

Immediately contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit. For more information, visit www.IRS.gov/identitytheft or call 1-800-908-4490.

Issue updates

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection, Food

Recall of Gold Medal Flour for Salmonella Contamination

General Mills announced Wednesday it is recalling all five-pound bags of Gold Medal Unbleached Flour because of potential Salmonella contamination. U.S. PIRG Consumer Watchdog issued the following statement.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Wells Fargo Reaches $575 Million Settlement With 50 States and D.C. Over Fake-Accounts and Other Consumer Scandals

Here is our statement about today's announced Wells Fargo settlement.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

Investigation alleges Facebook violates consumers’ privacy -- and an FTC consent decree against deception

Yesterday, The New York Times published the results of an investigation alleging that Facebook allowed big tech partners including Netflix and Spotify to access users’ personal data -- including private Facebook messages -- and ignored an FTC consent decree requiring users’ consent.

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Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

Agreement between 8 States & Equifax is a Good First Step

Our statement on news of an agreement between eight states’s banking regulators and Equifax to fix the credit bureaus’ data security flaws.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

U.S. PIRG Statement Supporting Wednesday’s Senate Vote To Reinstate Net Neutrality

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Charges against Former Volkswagen CEO Must be Followed by Trial

Here is our statement about this evening's news about criminal charges against former Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn. 

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32nd Annual “Trouble in Toyland” Survey Finds Dangerous Toys on Store Shelves

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Target Removes Lead-Laden Fidget Spinner From Website, But Still Available For Sale In-Store

Since late yesterday afternoon, Target appears to have made the 33,000 ppm-lead containing Fidget Wild Premium Spinner Brass unavailable for sale on its website. U.S. PIRG Education Fund staff went to a Target store today and found the Fidget Wild Premium Spinner Brass was still available for sale in-store, despite the website saying it was unavailable there. Also yesterday, one of the CPSC’s Commissioners, Elliot F. Kaye, re-stated his opposition to the CPSC’s guidance and the acting chairman's statement when he tweeted, “Seems obvious fidget spinners are toys and should comply with all applicable federal safety standards.”

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Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Should Facebook And Google Be Regulated As Credit Bureaus? | Ed Mierzwinski

In a series of joint privacy petitions to the Federal Trade Commission beginning in 2006 and extended more recently to include behavioral targeting, as well as medical and mobile marketing, U.S. PIRG and the Center for Digital Democracy (sometimes with allies) have argued for greater scrutiny and regulation of the online digital marketing and behavioral targeting ecosystem that involves companies you do business with, social networking tools, third-party advertisers and other players. Today, in the New York Times, Professor Lori Andrews says that "Facebook is Using You."

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Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Some Consumer News of the Week, In Case You Missed It | Ed Mierzwinski

It's hard to keep up, so here are some key consumer news stories I am following that you may have missed this week. We start with CALPIRG Education Fund's new "Cell Phone Guide," look at the Consumer Federation of America's report on auto insurance discrimination and take you all the way to the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign survey on what's "good, bad and ugly (rats!)" in NYC subway stations.

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Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Watch for fake 5.0 user ratings on merchant sites; and watch out for efforts by doctors, others to block real ratings, too | Ed Mierzwinski

Some user reviews on the Internet are written by sockpuppets paid by the website; in other cases, consumers are given inducements to write good reviews (New York Times). Meanwhile, doctors, especially, are trying to use copyright law to "squelch" valid reviews from patients (Washington Post). Either way, watch out.

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News Release | US PIRG

Representatives of several leading U.S. consumer and traveler groups today met with U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg to urge action on the most pressing consumer protection priorities affecting consumers flying commercial airlines. It was the first time representatives of consumer groups were granted a meeting with a U.S. Secretary of Transportation in nearly five years.

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

This report recaps the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s results for consumers over the past 10 years, the steps taken to return the CFPB back to its mission after three years of retrograde decisions under the Trump Administration, and our recommendations for CFPB action moving forward.

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) turns 10 years old, a new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund recaps how the agency has helped consumers over the past decade and the steps under way to refocus the CFPB on its mission after three years of retrograde decisions under the Trump Administration.

News Release | US PIRG

Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. said Wednesday it’s voluntarily recalling all lots of five types of Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol sunscreen after internal testing showed “low levels of benzene” -- which can cause cancer -- in some samples. J&J also said consumers should stop using the sunscreen.

News Release | US PIRG

Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. said Wednesday it’s voluntarily recalling all lots of five types of Neutrogena and Aveeno aerosol sunscreen after internal testing showed “low levels of benzene” -- which can cause cancer -- in some samples. J&J also said consumers should stop using the sunscreen.

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