Congress has approved billions of dollars of checks for Americans hard hit by the biggest round of layoffs in U.S. history. But millions of Americans will have to wait months for that money — and millions more may never get the money at all.
That's because the rescue legislation left it to the IRS, an agency gutted by Congress, to organize the complex logistics of delivering the money to those entitled to it. As the IRS has struggled, for-profit tax preparation companies, notably Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, have stepped in with websites to help people get their checks.
But Intuit is not just acting as a conduit: It is also misleading unwary Americans by steering them to paid services that they could otherwise get for free.
The job Congress gave to the IRS in its $2 trillion CARES Act is seemingly straightforward: Identify the Americans who qualify and send them money. This turns out to be far more complicated than it sounds.
Tens of millions of Americans have not provided the IRS with their banking account information, if they have one. Some of these people have filed taxes, so they should eventually receive money but will have to wait weeks or even months for a check to come in the mail.
Another group of Americans did not file taxes because they make so little money. Getting stimulus checks to them, an estimated 6 million households, is challenging. They now must file a new form online notifying the IRS who they are, or the tax agency has to find them. If they don't, these people will never get the checks of $1,200 and up.
The CARES Act, passed in late March, did not provide any mechanism to reach many of these low-income Americans. So far, the extent of the IRS' public outreach has been the creation of what the agency calls “e-posters," to be circulated online, describing the program and letters written by the commissioner to several nonprofits encouraging them to get involved.
Intuit has had a much more nimble approach. On April 4, the company rolled out a new “stimulus registration product" as part of its new Coronavirus Tax Center. But the site, marketed as “free," sometimes steers customers into products that cost money, in the same way ProPublica hasdocumented over the past year. What's more, customers who use it are signing away their personal data to the Silicon Valley firm, which the company can use to pitch third-party financial products to their customers.
The coronavirus rescue checks are yet another manifestation of a problem that has existed for decades. As ProPublica has documented, the IRS has long deferred to private industry instead of creating its own tax preparation and filing apparatus. The result has been that millions of Americans have paid billions of dollars to corporations for tax preparation they should have been able to get free of charge. This year, anyone who made under $69,000 does not need to pay to file; they are eligible to file taxes for free through an IRS program called Free File.
Now, Americans who desperately need checks to help cushion the coronavirus crash are being targeted by companies all over again.
“This vulnerable group of Americans might end up having to pay for tax prep that they could get for free," said Dennis Ventry, a tax law professor at University of California, Davis. “And this is a treasure trove of data for Intuit. The company can harvest the personal data of people who previously made up a universe of Americans that the tax prep companies didn't interact with."
Intuit trumpeted its program as a user-friendly way for people to get their money. “In partnership with the IRS," the company's press release announced, “TurboTax volunteered to create an innovative solution to help this group easily get their stimulus payment."
But the people coming to the site do not merely enter basic information that would be sent to the IRS in order to get their check processed.
In recent days, people who used Intuit's product to register for the stimulus were bombarded with a series of marketing emails with subject lines such as “E-file with direct deposit for your fastest refund and stimulus check." The emails push users to TurboTax's paid tax prep products.
Intuit said this was done in error. The company's spokesman said, “When we realized those creating accounts specifically for the Stimulus Registration product were receiving this general new account email it was turned off."
One thing missing from Intuit's coronavirus page is a link to the IRS' Free File program. To use it, taxpayers have to find the IRS' Free File page, which then sends users through to special pages operated by the tax prep companies. The Free File site is a collaboration between the IRS and these companies, which, led by Intuit, conceived of the program as a way to keep the government from building its own system.
Asked why Intuit is steering people toward its paid products on its coronavirus site, a company spokesman said that those looking for the Free File option should go to IRS.gov. The spokesman also pointed to a press release that says: “TurboTax volunteered to create an innovative solution to help this group easily get their stimulus payment — the TurboTax Stimulus Registration product was designed to help millions easily file a minimum tax return with the IRS." The IRS did not respond to questions.
Things got even more confusing on Friday, when, a week after the TurboTax site launched, the IRS announced a separate IRS.gov tool for people who don't need to file their taxes to register to receive their checks.
Users reading the fine print on the IRS tool would find that it, too, was created by Intuit.
Even though the same company created both tools, they look very different. The TurboTax version created by Intuit offers a slick design and user-friendly Q&A to enter personal data, along with multiple digital off-ramps to paid TurboTax products.
The IRS.gov version, also created by Intuit, is a clunky PDF-style form filled with jargon and small type. It is titled, “Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here."
An Intuit spokesman said the company “volunteered at no charge to deliver a solution" for the government. The spokesman did not respond to a question about why Intuit launched the TurboTax tool a week earlier than its IRS.gov tool.
“This crisis has highlighted the consequences of a decade of IRS budget cuts," Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement to ProPublica. “The IRS should be less dependent on private companies to distribute refund payments to millions of Americans. Over the long term we need to ensure that the IRS has the resources to more quickly respond especially in an economic downturn."
Last year, ProPublica reported extensively on Intuit's and other companies' efforts to downplay the Free File program, including by blocking Google from indexing their Free File pages. The coverage led to a lot more focus on Free File by Congress, state attorneys general and the rest.
That additional publicity seems to have boosted Free File usage. Through late March, according to an internal IRS report obtained by ProPublica, Free File usage was up 26% compared with the prior year, a jump of about 400,000 people. It's a significant increase, but, given that over 100 million Americans are eligible for the program and fewer than 3 million actually used it last year, not transformative.
The logistics of getting almost $300 billion in COVID-19 payments out to Americans were always going to be challenging and the details confusing. For that, thank the U.S.'s maddeningly complex tax system and the IRS' limited capacity.
The easy part is sending money to people who have already given their bank account information to the IRS.
Many Americans file taxes but don't give the IRS their bank account information and it's a group that tends to earn less income. According to a ProPublica analysis of tax filing data, 20 million households in 2018 received a refund but didn't use direct deposit, and most of them had income below $25,000. Many of these people don't have a bank account at all.
If they take no action, those households will have to wait for the IRS to mail them a paper check. Taxpayers who have shared their bank information with the service started receiving money this week. Others could wait months for postal delivery. The process of sending checks will start in May and continue into August, according to Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who sits on the committee that oversees the IRS.
For those people, the IRS has promised a different solution: a portal that will allow taxpayers to provide the agency with updated bank account information. This tool, distinct from the non-filers portal already launched, will be up by this Friday, the IRS said in a press release.
And then there are people who didn't file taxes. They fall into two broad groups. First, there's those who should have filed but did not. That group numbers in the millions, but the exact number is hard to pin down. It has likely grown in recent years because of lax enforcement by the IRS, which has cut its investigations of nonfilers to a small fraction of what they were.
Because the Social Security Administration regularly channels money to these people, lawmakers specifically stated in the CARES Act that the government could send those people money the same way — without them having to file a tax form.
But a couple days after the bill passed, the IRS announced that these people would, in fact, have to file a tax return. The Social Security Administration is not in charge of the CARES payments. What this would mean then, is that the IRS would have to sort through Social Security data to identify people who had not already filed their taxes. After an outcry, however, the IRS reversed itself, saying that these people did not have to file after all.
Actually, the best advice is more complicated, experts say. If these people want to see their CARES money as fast as possible, they should file their taxes. They can do so through the IRS' Free File program or via the new portal the IRS set up just for the CARES payments. If they don't file, it will take the IRS a while to figure out how to send Social Security recipients money.
The final group of people who are owed CARES money is the hardest for the IRS to reach: those who didn't file for taxes because they earned income, but too little to require filing (for a single person, that's under $12,200; for a married couple, under $24,400). It's a group that numbers in the neighborhood of 6 million, according to an estimate by the nonprofit New America.
These people will not receive a CARES payment at all unless they file something with the IRS. Maybe some will find their way to the IRS' Free File page or the agency's “Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here" site. And maybe some will find themselves on TurboTax's Coronavirus Tax Center page.
Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.