Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.
Dear Action Line:
I am new to the area and with the new year here, I'm frantically searching for a tax preparer. I've researched a few but I'm very particular about where I can place my financial trust. Can you help me?
Welcome to the neighborhood! It's a new year and time to start figuring out your taxes -- or at least figuring out who will do your taxes. And with all the new tax laws just passed, even those who normally wouldn't use a tax professional might want to rethink that.
According to the IRS, 80 percent of Americans enlist the help of a tax preparer or tax software when filing taxes.Taxpayers are legally responsible for their tax returns if prepared by someone else. This is why it's important to choose carefully when hiring an individual or firm to prepare your return.
New regulations require all paid tax return preparers to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number. IRS advises using only tax specialists who sign the returns they prepare and enter their PTINS.
In addition, your BBB recommends that you:
* Ask for referrals. Find out who your friends, family and even colleagues use for their taxes and then check their BBB Business Reviews at cencal.bbb.org. They are a great way to check out any business, including accountants and other tax professionals, and provide a company rating A+ to F based on 16 factors, including how long they've been in business and how they respond to complaints. Check for any disciplinary actions and licensure status through the state boards of accountancy for CPAs, the state bar associations for attorneys and the IRS Office of Enrollment for enrolled agents.
* Check credentials. Is the preparer a CPA, a tax lawyer or an enrolled agent? Will the preparer sign your return and provide you with a copy? Does the preparer belong to a professional organization that requires members to adhere to a code of ethics?
* Be wary of promises. Until the preparer knows your situation, there is no way to know whether you'll get a refund or how big it will be.
* Check accessibility. You may need to contact your preparer after the tax season is over. Will he or she be available? Will the return be filed electronically? Any paid preparer who prepares and files for more than 10 clients must do so electronically unless a paper return is requested.
* Know what the service will cost . Does the fee cover changes to your return? Will it increase if you have a complicated return? Will the preparer represent you in case of an audit? Make sure any refund due is sent directly to you or deposited into an account in your name.
Review the return before signing it. Never sign a blank return. Make sure you receive a copy of the return for your own records. And make sure the paid preparer signs the return.
-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or firstname.lastname@example.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.