Getting Worse Part 3: TurboTax Wrapped Its Veterans Site In The American Flag And Then Tricked Soldiers Into Paying
from the usa!--usa!--usa! dept
One of the most irritating aspects of our politically polarized reality is how that polarization seeps into everything. An example of that can be seen in the ongoing coverage, here and otherwise, of the complete shitshow Intuit has found itself in over how it has handled its TurboTax free-to-file taxes system. With all the best reporting coming from ProPublica, the whole thing started by exposing Intuit purposefully hiding the free-to-file website as best it could despite its obligations to Congress, got worse when Intuit’s support reps lied to customers about that reporting, and then got worse still when internal communications to Intuit staff carried the theme that Intuit was hiding its actually free program, but did so for the public’s own good. The result of all of this is that many people who qualify to file for free instead paid Intuit tons of money to file their taxes, all because the non-free website — which was massively branded with the word “free” — told them they didn’t qualify.
But here’s where the polarization comes in. This story should have been met with outrage from across the political spectrum. Instead, probably because one side of the aisle has been pitching having the IRS do free-to-file itself, while the other side has been fear-mongering having a government agency do what it absolutely could be doing already, the outrage is about half of what it should be.
But if there is anything that gets applause across from both sides of the political aisle, it’s typically support of US military veterans and active service members. Well, hey, great news: Intuit was fucking them over too!
In patriotism-drenched promotions, press releases and tweets, TurboTax promotes special deals for military service members, promising to help them file their taxes online for free or at a discount.
Yet some service members who’ve filed by going to the TurboTax Military landing page told ProPublica they were charged as much as $150 — even though, under a deal with the government, service members making under $66,000 are supposed to be able to file on TurboTax for free.
It takes a special kind of cynicism for a company to wrap itself in the American flag while charging our fighting men and women for tax prep services that it is obligated to provide for free. And it sure looks like Intuit is doing this purposefully, again playing all the SEO games it played to keep free tax prep services away from active service members. The post follows one family, the Zimmermans, that ended up paying $60 for tax prep that would have been free on the free-to-file site that Intuit keeps hidden. Liz Zimmerman ended up in that boat because she googled “tax preparation military free” and got the non-free site.
But when Zimmerman got to the end of the process, TurboTax charged her $60, even though the family makes under the $66,000 income threshold to file for free. “I’ve got a kid in braces and I’ve got a kid in preschool; $60 is half a week’s worth of groceries,” she said. “Who needs date night this month? At least I filed my taxes.”
In the commercial version of TurboTax that includes the “military discount,” customers are charged based on the tax forms they file. The Zimmermans used a form to claim a retirement savings credit that TurboTax required a paid upgrade to file. If they’d started from the TurboTax Free File landing page instead of the military page, they would have been able to file for free.
So now can we all agree that something must be done to punish Intuit for this? Is Intuit’s line — that it’s hiding free services for the public good — going to be accepted when we’re talking about active duty members of the military? If you need this point driven home even more, get a load of the bullshit in Intuit’s own marketing material.
To find TurboTax’s Free File landing page, service members typically have to go through the IRS website. TurboTax Military, by contrast, is promoted on the company’s home page and elsewhere. Starting through the Military landing page directs many users to paid products even when they are eligible to get the same service for no cost using the Free File edition.
An Intuit press release this year announced “TurboTax Offers Free Filing for Military E1- E5” — but refers users to TurboTax Military and does not mention the actual Free File option. (E1-E5 refers to military pay grades.) It was promoted on the company’s Twitter feed with a smiling picture of a woman wearing fatigues outside her suburban home. Google searches for “TurboTax military,” “TurboTax for soldiers” and “TurboTax for troops” all produce top results sending users to the TurboTax Military page.
Intuit will tell you that the TurboTax Military site does in fact allow some service members to file for free. And that’s true, but the site also charges other service members for tax prep that would be totally free using Intuit’s actual free-to-file site found on the IRS website. ProPublica dug further to test this with volunteer service members.
We tested TurboTax Military and TurboTax Free File using the tax information of a Virginia-based Navy sailor and his graphic designer wife with a household income of $53,000.
The filing experiences had just one major difference: TurboTax Military tried to upgrade us or convince us to pay for side products six times. We declined those extras each time. Finally, the program told us we had to pay $159.98 to finish filing.
And that “military discount”? All of $5.
In the Free File version, by contrast, we were able to file completely free.
Come on, people. It can’t take a “Getting Worse Part 4” to get some real action on this beyond a couple of municipal and state investigations.