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

Blog Post | Consumer Tips, COVID-19, Consumer Protection

Is your mortgage forbearance ending? | Teresa Murray

If the COVID-19 pandemic affects your ability to pay, here’s what you need to know

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Tips, COVID-19, Consumer Protection

If you’re behind on your mortgage payments, here are some tips | Teresa Murray

Good news: You may still be able to request a forbearance because of COVID-19

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection, Food

New study indicates toxic chemicals used in take-out food packaging from popular chains

A new study that tested for PFAS in food containers from six restaurant chains found that, out of 29 unique samples, 14 tested above the screening level for fluorine, suggesting PFAS treatment.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Consumer Complaints Break Records

On the 10th anniversary of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) establishment as a centerpiece of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the law passed on 21 July 2010 and the Bureau opened its doors one year later), we look at the latest results from the CFPB’s public Consumer Complaint Database. This snapshot finds that, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the financial situations of millions of Americans, consumer complaints to the CFPB have spiked to record levels.

> Keep Reading

Pages

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

Investigation finds 1 in 9 used cars for sale at AutoNation have unrepaired safety recalls

AutoNation, America’s largest auto retailer, is selling used vehicles with unrepaired safety recalls including explosive Takata airbags, faulty GM ignition switches and defects with no fix available.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Public Health, Consumer Protection

New analysis uncovers unsafe blood pressure medication distributed in US

A new analysis of publicly available information from the FDA by U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund finds only 26 percent of a class of recalled blood pressure medications have been assessed for carcinogen contamiantion -- and the majority had some lots with higher levels than the FDA considers safe.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Consumer Protection

Statement: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau agrees to retain consumer complaint database and enhance elements of the key resource

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced today it would continue to maintain its public consumer complaint database, and that it also plans to make a number of “enhancements” to the database. These include: providing financial information and details into the complaint process to both better address questions and inform consumers before issuing a complaint; and adding materials to help consumers who seek answers to specific questions from financial companies.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Tips, Consumer Protection, Higher Ed

College students can save hundreds as they head back to school

College is expensive, requiring many students to take out significant loans to afford an education. On top of that, students have to deal with the additional costs of textbooks, computers and other critical supplies. As students head back to school -- or to school for the first time -- U.S. PIRG Education Fund is releasing a money-saving guide to help them cut those additional costs.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund & Kids in Danger | Consumer Protection

1 in 10 surveyed daycares still using deadly, recalled infant sleepers

Three months after nearly 5.4 million infant sleepers were recalled for causing 36 infant deaths, a new survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education (U.S. PIRG) and Kids in Danger (KID) revealed that many child care facilities continue to use these dangerous inclined sleepers.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Big Banks, Bigger Fees

Since Congress largely deregulated consumer deposit (checking and savings) accounts beginning in the early 1980s, the PIRGs have tracked bank deposit account fee changes and documented the banks’ long-term strategy to raise fees, invent new fees and make it harder to avoid fees. 

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

A Public Interest Internet Agenda

A Public Interest Internet Agenda prescribes broadband policy solutions that are tied to the common good and our nation’s prosperity. Connecting our entire nation to the Internet at broadband speed is the key to economic development, improved healthcare and education, energy efficiency, robust democracy and open government.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Online Behavorial Tracking and Targeting, Legislative Primer

Consumers are increasingly relying on the Internet and other digital services for a wide range of transactions and services, many of which involve their most sensitive affairs, including health, financial, and other personal matters. At the same time many companies are now engaging in behavioral advertising, which involves the surreptitious tracking and targeting of consumers.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Mixed Signals

In an effort to determine America’s preparedness for the transition, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund conducted a “secret shopper” survey at 132 locations of five leading national electronics retailers in ten states. The survey found that retail electronic store staff are largely uninformed and are not adequately preparing consumers for the impending transition to digital television.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Congress Votes Against Consumers and Internet Privacy | Kara Cook-Schultz

Yesterday, the House voted to gut online consumer protections, and if the president signs the legislation, internet service providers will be able to use and sell consumers’ personal information without their permission.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

CFPB Report Finds 1 In 4 Consumers Feel "Threatened" By Debt Collector Tactics | Ed Mierzwinski

We joined Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray and Washington, DC Attorney General Karl Racine for release of new CFPB data on debt collector abuses. Fully 1 in 4 consumers feel "threatened" by abusive, possibly illegal, debt collector tactics. The release also included an emphasis on problems with the "debt buyer" industry, comprised of firms that buy older, uncollected debt for as little as less than a penny on the dollar.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

U.S. SUPREME COURT TO DECIDE WHETHER CREDIT CARD COMPANIES CAN CONTINUE TO OBSCURE THE TRUE COST OF CREDIT | Michael Landis

Credit cards are convenient. But using them is expensive. The problem is that most consumers don’t know just how expensive it is. That might change in some states after the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on a case currently pending before it.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection, Financial Reform

OUR TAKE ON THE LATEST ATTACK ON THE CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION BUREAU | Michael Landis

Though the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finds itself under constant attack. The most recent is from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. U.S. PIRG Education Fund—along with nine other consumer and civil rights organizations—filed an amicus brief in support of the CFPB’s request for a rehearing before the entire D.C. Circuit. The Department of Justice also filed a brief in support of the CFPB’s request. It is important that the October ruling is corrected so that the CFPB remains a strong and independent agency that looks out for consumers.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

This New Year, Celebrate the CFPB | Ed Mierzwinski

This month, we published our 8th report based on analyzing consumer complaints collected in the CFPB's Public Consumer Complaint Database. The release of "Big Banks, Big Overdraft Fees" provides a good year-end opportunity to summarize a few of the reasons to be thankful for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which took over in July 2011 as the first federal regulator with just one job: protecting consumers from unfair financial practices. The idea of the CFPB needs no defense, only more defenders.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post

In response to a tidal wave of unfair marketplace practices, the CFPB asked the public to submit comments on the impact of junk fees on their lives. Some 2,500 comments later, consumers have described the pain points caused by unfair junk fees.

Cover graphic courtesy Student Borrower Protection Center, used by permission

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Today, in response to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) request for information (RFI) on harmful “junk fees,” the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC) and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund submitted comments exposing how financial service giants and universities are plaguing postsecondary students with unexpected, unavoidable, and hugely expensive charges on a range of financial products.

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Report on issues with "Buy Now, Pay Later" financing plans.

Blog Post

Even with the knowledge I’ve gained working as a consumer advocate for several years, getting my finances in order has been a work in progress. 

View AllRSS Feed

Support us

Your tax-deductible donation supports U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s work to educate consumers on the issues that matter, and the powerful interests that are blocking progress.

Learn More

You can also support U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s work through bequests, contributions from life insurance or retirement plans, securities contributions and vehicle donations. 




U.S. PIRG Education Fund is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.