March 21, 2019
One of the most frequently asked questions I get during tax season is this: Are the commercials I hear about helping me settle my tax debt for real?
One should not swear but the answer to this question almost always makes me want to yell some obscenities — not at the person asking but at the companies that prey on people in tax trouble.
Fearing that the IRS won't help and instead will move to aggressively to collect taxes owed, people gravitate to the voices that offer too-good-to-be-true deliverance.
The typical pitch: "Owe the IRS $10,000 or more? We can help."
For the most part, pitches like this that you hear on the radio or see on late-night television promise tax debt relief that you can get for yourself — free. And that's if the commercial was on behalf of a legitimate company, which many are not.
I generally advise people to stay away from companies offering tax debt settlement. Save yourself some money and heartache. If it's a scam, you'll be out thousands of dollars — money you could have used to pay your tax debt. Even if the company actually helps you settle your debt, it seldom provides services you couldn't have gotten on your own with a call to the IRS or a visit to irs.gov.
Here's what is likely to happen if you hire a lawful company:
— You are asked to send your tax documents such as your W-2 form, 1099s, etc.
— The debt settlement company sends you the paperwork to set up a payment plan with the IRS. It's likely information downloaded from the IRS website.
— The company may also indicate you might qualify to have your debt reduced. It makes it sound as if only it can get this relief for you because of the company's incredible negotiation skills.
But the fact is, company employees simply have you apply for what's called an "Offer in Compromise" or OIC. This is a legitimate program offered by the IRS that is intended to help people who are so financially strapped that it's unlikely the agency could collect all that the government is owed. But what the company may not reveal is that the bar to get an OIC is incredibly high.
An OIC allows you to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount owed. The IRS will dig through your finances to see if you qualify. The agency will examine your income, expenses, ability to pay and, most importantly, whether you have any assets — including equity in your home.
"We generally approve an offer in compromise when the amount offered represents the most we can expect to collect within a reasonable period of time," the IRS says.
Again, you can advocate for yourself and save your money.
Here's what typically happens in a tax debt settlement scam.
— The company promises a team of experts, including former IRS agents or attorneys, will help significantly reduce your tax obligation.
— You are asked to send your tax documents.
— Then you wait.
— After not hearing anything about your case, you call. At the start — before you gave the company several hundred dollars or thousands of dollars — your calls were answered. But once you pay the so-called settlement fee, the company goes silent. You can't get anyone to return your telephone calls.
— You've been scammed.
You might not recall the "Tax Lady" but Roni Deutch operated a tax debt resolution firm that heavily advertised it could help people resolve their back-tax liability. The California attorney general's office alleged in 2010 that Deutch swindled thousands of people by taking large upfront payments while providing little or no help in lowering clients' tax bills.
Although Deutch denied any wrongdoing, she closed her law practice and voluntarily turned in her law license to the California State Bar. In 2015, the Sacramento Superior Court entered a civil judgment against Deutch, ordering her to pay $50,000 in civil penalties and $2.45 million in restitution to victims
Here's free assistance you can get at irs.gov if you have a tax debt you can't pay by April 15.
— You can set up a payment plan for yourself.
"In recent years, we've typically set up in the neighborhood of 2 million to 3 million payment agreements per year," said IRS spokesman Eric Smith. "We encourage people who can't pay in full to set up a payment agreement with us. It's actually a pretty routine piece of business for us. Most people qualify, especially if they are current on their past tax obligations."
Smith said people can usually set up an agreement online in a matter of minutes. Using the Online Payment Agreement Application available on IRS.gov, those who owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest can set up a monthly payment agreement for up to 72 months or a short-term payment plan for up to 120 days, Smith said.
"So bottom line, if you usually get refunds and have a surprise tax bill this year, setting one up should be automatic," he said.
— You can apply for an OIC yourself. Read this on irs.gov: Offer in Compromise — Frequently Asked Questions
On the agency's website, you'll also find a tool in which you answer some initial questions to see if you qualify for an OIC — the same questions a legit debt settlement company will ask. For example, you must have filed all required federal tax returns. You're not eligible if you are in an open bankruptcy proceeding.
Use the free "Offer the Compromise Pre-Qualifier" to check your eligibility.
Use IRS Form 656 Booklet to get step-by-step instructions for submitting an OIC.
Most importantly, even if you can't pay, file your return.
"If you can pay at least part of your bill by April 15, it really helps," Smith said. "There will be interest on anything we get after April 15. The current rate is 6 percent per year, compounded daily. There's also a late-payment penalty of one-half of one percent per month (0.5 percent), but if you have a payment agreement in place, the penalty accrual is cut in half to one-quarter of one percent (0.25 percent).
I know contacting the IRS may be scary but conquer your fear and you'll save yourself from a scammer.
Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter @SingletaryM and Facebook.