ShareThis Page

Tax-preparer fraud can ruin finances

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

For Oscar Sotelo, tax season was a gold mine for two years running. He found a man who prepared taxes in California's Central Valley, promised big refunds — and delivered.

Then the Internal Revenue Service letters started coming. Sotelo was never supposed to get that money; now, the IRS wanted it back.

The IRS says Sotelo was the victim in 2009 and 2010 of tax-preparer fraud, a widespread scam that can leave innocent taxpayers with a mountain of debt and put them in the crosshairs of the IRS. In this type of fraud, a tax preparer creates big refunds by lying on the tax return, giving both the preparer and taxpayer a nice payday. But when the IRS comes knocking, it's the taxpayer who's on the hook.

“There's this huge refund that goes out the door that the taxpayer is clearly not entitled to, but they don't know that,” said Caroline Chen, assistant clinical professor of law and director of the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Santa Clara University. “They find out later, after the money, of course, is spent.”

The cumbersome tax code, insufficient regulations and under-resourced enforcement agencies have helped create a breeding ground for tax preparer fraud, experts said. Each year, illegally practicing tax preparers strike, leaving their frequent victims, low-income and immigrant taxpayers, in financial ruin.

“There's a lot of people who prepare tax returns who are not qualified,” said Special Agent Arlette Lee of the IRS Criminal Investigations for Northern California. “Tax-return preparers may be doing this, and the taxpayer has no idea.”

The fraud happens in a few different ways. In some cases, the preparer lies on the tax return, fabricating deductions such as charitable contributions, property taxes and business expenses. The taxpayer often doesn't know the preparer is lying on the return or is tricked. The fictitious deductions inflate the amount of the refund, and the preparer demands a generous percentage — a billing system the IRS says is illegal.

“These preparers get paid and then they disappear,” said David Freeman, a third-year law student at Santa Clara University who helps at the tax clinic. “And then the clients show up a couple years later to us.”

Tax refunds are paid automatically and immediately, and the IRS has up to three years after the refund to audit, Chen said.

Sotelo, a truck driver and father of four from Livingston, Calif., already had several notices from the IRS by the time he went to the SCU tax clinic last year. His preparer, Sarad Chand, who operated S. Chand Tax & Accounting Service in Ripon, Calif., had told him to ignore the letters, Sotelo said.

“I felt bad in the beginning. I had to pay so much money,” Sotelo said in Spanish. “I didn't understand why.”

Chand was charged in December with 10 counts of falsifying tax returns as part of a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $100,000 bond. His clients have to pay thousands of dollars back to the IRS.

“They are ultimately responsible for the information listed on the tax return — no matter if it is right, wrong or even fraudulent,” said Gigi Campo, spokeswoman for the California Tax Education Council, a nonprofit created by the state legislature to oversee tax preparer education and compliance. “The damage those tax preparers committed on the tax return is still the consumer's problem to deal with.”

That damage can be devastating, because scheming preparers target the most vulnerable — poor and non-English speaking communities.

“They are attractive to people who don't like bureaucracy,” Freeman said. “To them, H&R Block probably looks like a DMV.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.