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Originally published Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Quick tax refunds could tempt low-income workers

Large banks replace refund-anticipation loans with new products.

Detroit Free Press

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For many people living paycheck-to-paycheck, a big, fat federal income-tax refund just cannot arrive soon enough.

This season’s tax refunds, though, are going to be one week late because the Internal Revenue Service couldn’t begin processing the vast majority of returns until Jan. 30. Blame Washington for dragging out the fiscal-cliff debate and tinkering too long with the tax code.

A week might not mean much to some. But many lower-income households could be more tempted to jump at fast-cash products offered through a tax preparer.

Consumer advocates are pleased to report this is the first year in decades that overpriced refund-anticipation loans will no longer be available from banks on a large-scale basis.

H&R Block no longer offers a refund-anticipation loan. But H&R Block does have refund-anticipation checks, which allow you to deduct your tax-prep fees from the refund. There’s an extra charge of $24.95 for a refund-anticipation check to have your federal income-tax refund deposited onto H&R Block’s debit card, called the Emerald Card. Or there’s an extra charge of $34.95 if you have your own bank account for direct deposit and use a refund-anticipation check to cover the cost of tax preparation. Or there’s an extra charge of $54.95 to have a paper check mailed to you as part of the refund-anticipation check program.

The refund-anticipation check program is used when people typically do not have a bank account and want to receive a refund faster than regular mail — or when they don’t want to pay immediately for tax-preparation fees and would rather have those fees deducted from a refund, said Gene King, an H&R Block spokesman in Kansas City, Mo.

Jackson Hewitt is not offering refund-anticipation loans but has a refund-anticipation check product called Assisted Refund, in which fees are charged but a customer can avoid out-of-pocket costs at the time the tax return is filled out.

Consumer advocates question the notion of paying extra fees when lower-income people could qualify for free tax assistance and have refunds directly deposited into a bank account. Some free tax-help programs offer prepaid-debit cards for tax refunds for those who don’t have bank accounts, too.

“We’re always concerned when consumers don’t receive the entire balance of their tax refund,” said Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America.

“The desire to get a refund sooner is being used to get consumers to pay for tax preparation.”

Millions of struggling Americans qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which can create extra-large refunds for working households. The federal EITC can generate up to $5,891 for working families.

But again, why waste any of that precious refund on tax-preparation services if one qualifies for free tax help?

Volunteer tax sites process returns for free if the family has an income of up to about $50,000 or the individual has an annual income up to $35,000 in many cases.

If your adjusted gross income was $57,000 or less in 2012, you can use the Free File program at IRS.gov and select your choice of tax software for free.

Some consumers might not understand that refund-anticipation checks do not deliver refunds faster than the IRS can via direct deposit. Taxpayers who have a bank account should be able to get a refund in 21 days or less if they use e-filing and have money directly deposited into a bank account. So why pay extra fees?

Some people could get talked into taking a tax-related loan that’s made by a payday lender, instead of a major bank. And those loans could even be costlier and have more risk, said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.

Consumer advocates are concerned that unscrupulous tax preparers could engage in a “bait-and-switch” kind of a deal to just get customers in the door to pay for tax-preparation services. A consumer could pay $400 or $500 in tax-prep fees in hopes of qualifying for a refund-anticipation loan but then be denied that loan because of limited dollars available for such loans.

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