Intuit Does Subterfuge To Combat Free-Filing Tax Returns

from the sneaky-sneaky dept

It’s tax time again, when we all turn just a bit more Republican for a month or so, curse out the inept government that asks us to pay for all that they do, and emote a general grumbling attitude throughout the days. Fun, right? Part of what makes this time of year such a royal pain in the ass is that many of us pay to pay our taxes, using any number of accounting and tax prep services just to keep Uncle Sam off our backs. Last year, we wrote about how Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, was actively waging a campaign against the government free-filing program, in which the IRS offers to fill out much of the paperwork and allow citizens to e-file their taxes with minimal input. The program is entirely voluntary, but that didn’t stop Intuit from raging against the machine, suggesting that the IRS would overcharge the poor and that the program would, like, really hurt their business (honesty!).

It turns out that trying to stifle people’s ability to simplify their own lives and file their taxes for free wasn’t all that great for the old public relations department, however, so Intuit has instead decided to go the sneaky route and get a bunch of unwitting mouthpieces to do it for them.

Over the last year, a rabbi, a state NAACP official, a small town mayor and other community leaders wrote op-eds and letters to Congress with remarkably similar language on a remarkably obscure topic. Each railed against a long-standing proposal that would give taxpayers the option to use pre-filled tax returns. They warned that the program would be a conflict of interest for the IRS and would especially hurt low-income people, who wouldn’t have the resources to fight inaccurate returns. Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote in a Jewish Journal op-ed that he “shudder[s] at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society.”

So you’re wondering where the problem in all of this is? Well, it turns out these folks didn’t just independently decide to write the same op-eds. It would appear that they were approached by groups affiliated with Intuit and asked to write them. The folks targeted weren’t informed of the connection, either.

Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat. What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit, the maker of best-selling tax software TurboTax.

“I wish she would have told me that,” Dorff told ProPublica.

You think? What once appeared to be some kind of grassroots campaign by the concerned public towards what might be a real issue suddenly has devolved into a public relations blitz undertaken through dishonest means by corporate interests. In other words, it’s the same message we got last year, and from the same source, but that source is hiding behind unwitting accomplices. The underhanded deeds weren’t over, however.

The website of Pflaster’s firm, JCI Worldwide, had listed Intuit among its clients, but removed it after ProPublica contacted them. Pflaster said Intuit had been listed by mistake….

That’s quite an error to make and quite a coincidental time for that error to be “corrected.” And, while Intuit’s only comment on the matter was some general mumblings about how they use multiple avenues to improve “tax empowerment” of the public, it’s a special kind of shady that refers to demonizing an entirely optional and free government service as empowerment of the public. Meanwhile, of course, Intuit has lobbied heavily on bills related to free-filing.

In the end, there may indeed be flaws in the government’s free-filing program and process. Actually, it’d be a bit of a shock if there weren’t flaws. But it’s voluntary, and the solution to those flaws is most certainly not subterfuge and dishonest attempts to coerce a public through their religious leaders.

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Companies: intuit, jci worldwide

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Comments on “Intuit Does Subterfuge To Combat Free-Filing Tax Returns”

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Scote (profile) says:

Re: There's a joke here somewhere

Yeah, it does sound like a joke. And they may have been tricked, but, frankly, I’m not very sympathetic. They had no business writing an op ed on something they knew nothing about other than what they were told by one person – regardless of whether they knew that person was a paid industry PR flack. They had an obligation to do some research of their own. Heck, I do more research writing some internet forum posts than they did writing a news paper op ed. Disgusting, IMO.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am sure it would be voluntary, just like all the other IRS programs. I expect that they would need some extra information, but I am sure that would be voluntary as well. So long as they kept all the information safe and separate as I am sure they will with our health care information.

No seriously, what could go wrong ?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s part of the problem with ACA. No one but no one supporting ACA is wanting to talk about the lack of security that wasn’t put in the program from the get go. It’s been mentioned a few times that security was never designed with the software as it was being made. Funny how we don’t hear much about that isn’t it? That is until someone hacks the crap out of it for it’s database.

I can tell you one thing. Intuit has one that will never, ever, under any circumstances use their software for taxes. They have made certain I will never use them by this action. Taxes are enough of a PNA as it is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why no mention of CCIA's involvement?

Interesting that Techdirt failed to mention the fact that CCIA is at the heart of this “subterfuge” campaign. In fact, one of the pull quotes is even redacted to avoid referencing CCIA. Granted, Techdirt has given CCIA a platform in the past and allowed the organization’s lobbyists to post op-eds. But, I thought Techdirt had the intellectual honesty to at least call out allies when they are in the wrong. I guess not.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Why no mention of CCIA's involvement?

Huh, you know what, I can completely see where you would get that impression. As a matter of full disclosure, I did indeed specifically leave the CCIA portion of the article out, but not because I thought it cast us in a bad light. Rather, I found the obvious attempt to lie about not having Intuit as a client but instead hiding behind the CCIA, with whom Intuit is also involved (you’d think we’d avoid attacking their members, since we’re supposed to be so CCIA nefarious and all…), such a blatant lie that it didn’t seem worth highlighting.

But, as the author of the post, I truly can see why you’d think the omission was for other reasons. Consider this a confirmation for all comment readers that the original comment is correct that the CCIA was referenced, although nobody with any sense will believe that the CCIA as a whole, rather than a single member, Intuit, was actually behind this….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Why no mention of CCIA's involvement?

Appreciate the candor. However, I’m not sure I agree with your take on CCIA’s involvement. If you re-read the article, you’ll notice that CCIA’s president gave a statement indicating his organization is lobbying against the “Return Free” act. Furthermore, the astroturf letters appear on a site that was created for CCIA. Additionally, later in the article, it references a situation where a CCIA employee tried to solicit someone at a nonprofit to write very similar letters. Based on the evidence provided in the article, it appears that CCIA is leading the effort on behalf of its member Intuit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Why no mention of CCIA's involvement?

“Full disclosure: We cut off a quote mid sentence to avoid mentioning CCIA’s involvement because we didn’t want our readers to know about it.”

That’s pretty much it. You could have explained it and provided context. You could have trusted your readers to draw their own conclusions. Instead, you hid the involvement of a lobbying organization that has worked with Techdirt in the past in an embarrassing story, one where a company is seeking laws to avoid “competing with free”, no less.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Not the only subterfuge

My mother complains that Inuit offers on the web to prepare returns for free for some individuals. However, she discovered that it is not possible to print those returns without paying a fee.

Since many people need printed returns (she needs them to apply for government assistance) this subterfuge basically corners them into paying for the supposedly “free” service.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not the only subterfuge

Copying the data to the form is not possible. The whole point of the complaint is that the forms are not available for viewing or printing.

You drop your inputs into the web site, and they send it to the IRS electronically; but you can’t see how the forms should look at all. You can’t even check the figures.

Without paying.

Flack (profile) says:

Right idea, wrong strategy

I’d rather the IRS didn’t try to ‘help.’ A better solution is for the IRS to pay a small fee (e.g. $10) to each person who files for free using an approved service (Intuit, HR Block, Money, etc.) And make sure it works on Android and iOS (unlike the rest of the IRS site)

I doubt the ‘best’ product managers would be attracted to government jobs anyway.

Scote (profile) says:

Re: I'd rather they did.

For most simple returns the government already has the W-2s on record. There is no reason why people with 1040 EZ returns should have to do anything but submit a simple web form on the IRS website. Intuit doesn’t want the government to be efficient or accessible.

With your plan, why should Intuit or HR Block be given an IRS mandate to get a chance to market to tax payers?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Right idea, wrong strategy

Might be tin-foil hat territory, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the biggest groups against tax simplification were rich people and companies.

With a simple system, they’d pay their taxes, and that would be it, however, with a more complex system, there’s all sorts of loopholes they can use to reduce, potentially drastically, the taxes they have to pay out.

Call me Al says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Right idea, wrong strategy

The rich and companies may be against basic simplification however the burden of additional compliance in recent years has been from the IRS trying to find what those rich people are hiding overseas. There are now so many forms in connection with this that there is a massive compliance burden on any Americans with foreign accounts or assets… especially Americans who just happen not to live in the US.

It is like the IRS says “oh you don’t want to live in the US. You must be guilty of hiding money from us. Tell me EVERYTHING!”

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t understand the flap! Federal and most state filings are ALREADY free on line. OK, so you have to have your numbers handy and fill out a form online, that automatically calculates for you. It takes five minutes and you’re done. Same for state returns. I filed in my state, early, and had my refund within one week. When I need outside help, when it’s too complicated for me to figure out, I hire an accountant to file for me. They almost always pay for themselves, anyway, so do it! That is a TAX ACCOUNTANT, not Block or Hewett or any of the rest of those scam artists.

Jonathan says:

Re: The flap, sir

is that you are perfectly content with being a consumer and eating up whatever shiny object the market sees fit to hand you.

The rest of us prefer to be citizens and not have brightly colored artificial crap jumping in our faces all the damn time.

There is one thing to say for being a consumer: you’ll never have to worry about critical thinking.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: The flap, sir

The flap, sir is that you are perfectly content with being a consumer and eating up whatever shiny object the market sees fit to hand you.

Wow Jonathan. That’s an awful lot of derision to be heaping upon someone for utilizing the free online tax services that already exist. What’s up with that? Are you an tax accountant worried about losing revenue or something?

The one I use, FreeTaxUSA, is suggested by the IRS themselves. I’ve used it for the last three years and have had no problems at all.

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