from the hide-and-seek dept
For years, advocates for the non-wealthy public have put forward plans to simplify the tax-preparation process by having the IRS pre-prepare a tax filing with the information it already has, sending it to citizens, and allowing those citizens to either sign and return it or do their own tax preparation if they think there are errors. Several politicians have put versions of this plan forward, including Elizabeth Warren. The idea is that, for the vast majority of Americans, the IRS already has all the information it needs for the tax filing. Why make most people do tax prep when they don’t have to?
Well, for just as many years, the companies that make money by doing this tax prep work have lobbied heavily in Congress to keep this from becoming law. Intuit, makers of TurboTax software, has been particularly active on this front, with novel arguments that amount to, “But if you make this law, then we’ll make less money.” When that messaging became a PR disaster, the company tricked a bunch of mouth-pieces to say all this for it.
Now, if all of that seems like shady shit, you ain’t seen nothing yet. One of the ways companies like Intuit hand-wave concerns that its lobbying efforts are coercing the poor and middle class to pay for tax prep that is so simple it should be free is by pointing out that it entered into an agreement with the IRS to offer their own free-to-file programs for anyone that makes less than $66k in a given year. While that’s true, ProPublica has a nice write up of just how far Intuit in particular goes to hide this program from the very public it’s supposed to be serving.
Intuit and other tax software companies have spent millions lobbying to make sure that the IRS doesn’t offer its own tax preparation and filing service. In exchange, the companies have entered into an agreement with the IRS to offer a “Free File” product to most Americans — but good luck finding it.
Here’s what happened when we went looking.
Our first stop was Google. We searched for “irs free file taxes.” And we thought we found what we were looking for: Ads from TurboTax and others directing us to free products.
Spoiler alert: those products didn’t end up being free. Despite ads that mentioned “free” several times over, the researchers that created a profile of a house cleaner making $29k for the year, TurboTax’s site declared that free to file wasn’t an option because the fictional citizen was an independent contractor. Instead, the tax prep would cost $119.99. ProPublica continued:
Then we tried with a second scenario. We went back to TurboTax.com and clicked on “FREE Guaranteed.” This time, we went through the process as a Walgreens cashier without health insurance, entering personal information and giving the company lots of sensitive data.
Again, TurboTax told us we had to pay — this time because there’s an extra form if you don’t have insurance. The charge? $59.99.
Per the article, both instances are not kosher based on the agreement with the IRS. That agreement is quite simple: if you make less than $66k in the year, you get to file for free, period. From there, the researchers dug into TurboTax’s source code.
Even though we clicked on the “FREE Guaranteed” option and met all the requirements to file for free, the company had tagged us as a potential paying customer. In the source code, TurboTax had branded us as “NONFFA.” That stands for “Non Free File Alliance.” In other words, we were not on track to file for free after all. Even though TurboTax could tell we were eligible to file for free, the company never told us about the truly free version.
It turns out that if you start the process from TurboTax.com, it’s impossible to find the truly free version. The company itself admits this.
So, despite that site being laced with as many “free”s as could be mustered, you can’t actually get to free filing at all. How many folks using the site to file for free do you think make it all the way to the FAQ page and realize their mistake compared with how many accept what the site tells them and pay up to file instead? Especially when “free” appears all over the sites on which you cannot file for free, but the actual free filing site is called, sigh, TurboTax Freedom?
But let’s pretend most people do get to that FAQ. The researchers threw “turbotax freedom” into Google to see what popped up.
The first link was from TurboTax and said “Free File Program” right in the text. We clicked, and it brought us to this new page. While the orange “See If You Qualify” link did take us to the real Free File program, the blue “Start for Free” link brought us back to the version of TurboTax where we ended up having to pay.
Whatever this is, it clearly isn’t Intuit comporting with the spirit of the agreement it signed with the IRS. All of these shady tactics are quite obviously designed to keep people from ever finding the free to file site, to trick the lower classes into paying for tax prep work when they should not be, and depressing the number of people that actually use it as much as possible.
The reward for all of that shady behavior are calls from the same Congress that receives Intuit’s lobbying dollars to end the program as it’s not achieving its goals. And, it seems Congress is also considering legally barring the IRS from offering any free to file program itself, because that certainly serves common people.
Congress is now moving to put the Free File program into law, including its restriction on the IRS creating its own free service. We wrote about that earlier this month and the opposition to this provision by freshman Democratic Reps. Katie Hill, Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. The House ultimately passed the bipartisan Taxpayer First Act, which also contains some provisions that consumer advocates support, such as restrictions on private debt collection of unpaid taxes.
Now the Senate is considering the bill. Its sponsors have argued that it doesn’t tie the IRS’ hands, but outside legal experts we’ve spoken to disagree. The text in the bill codifying the Free File program has long been sought by lobbyists for Intuit.
In addition to all of this, to make matters way, way worse, more information has come to light since the original ProPublica post and the original writing of this piece. In a follow up post, ProPublic has unearthed that Intuit specifically and actively de-indexed the free-to-file website from Google’s search engine with the robot.txt file.
The code on TurboTax’s Free File site says “noindex,nofollow” — instructions for it not to show up in search results.
In contrast, the TurboTax page that puts many users on track to pay signals to Google that it should be listed in search results.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that he plans to raise Intuit’s misleading marketing with the IRS. “Intuit’s tactics to reduce access to the Free File program and confuse taxpayers are outrageous,” he said.
Don’t expect Wyden to be the only member of Congress to get into the act. Several of the Democratic Presidential candidates are members of Congress as well, and you can bet that this is the kind of subject many of them will be all over. Elizabeth Warren in particular, as one of those pushing the IRS to do its own free to file program via legislation, should be an interesting watch here.
What the end result of all of this is unknown at the moment, but it looks very, very bad for Intuit. Again, Intuit signed an agreement with the IRS not only to offer free to file itself, but to take action to increase the use of it. Delisting the website where it can be done is about as counter to that promise as can be had.