February 22, 2024

We all like the word “free,” but not when it doesn’t apply to us. On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission said that Intuit, the company that makes the tax-prep software TurboTax, can no longer market its services as “free,” since that’s not exactly accurate. Most customers find out they aren’t eligible to use the free product Intuit offers and must upgrade to a paid version.

The commission’s opinion and order was “a major win for consumers and honest marketers,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. The opinion said Intuit engaged in a “broad, enduring, and willful” deceptive advertising campaign.

The FTC opinion pointed out that TurboTax ads had described its product as free in “scores of ads.” The company’s Absolute Zero ad campaign, cited by the commission, included the phrase “Free Guaranteed” and the line “at least your taxes are free.”

“The commission has issued an order setting forth a  clear standard that Intuit must follow,” Levine said. “They must stop their deceptive ads and tell the truth about how many people are actually eligible for their supposed ‘free’ products. The order also sends a message across industry — “free” means free, not “free for a few” or “free for some.” Businesses can expect an FTC enforcement action if they harness the power of “free” in the dishonest way Intuit did.

“Intuit has appealed this deeply flawed decision, and we believe that when the matter ultimately returns to a neutral body Intuit will prevail,” a representative for the company said in a statement emailed to CNET.

A longer statement posted on the company’s site noted that “there is no monetary penalty in the FTC’s order, and Intuit expects no significant impact to its business.” The company went on to say it was proud of helping more than 124 million Americans file their taxes without charge.

The FTC’s announcement is timely, with this year’s tax season just getting under way in the runup to the April 15 tax filing deadline. It’s a time of anxiety for many people, as they gather records, crunch numbers and fill out tax form after tax form. That’s big business for companies like Intuit and H&R Block, as well as accountants across the country — tax prep services brought in $13.9 billion in revenue in 2023, according to industry research company IBISWorld.

CNET has a roundup of tax tips and services, including reviews of tax-preparation software and tax-related news stories. The 2024 tax season begins on Jan. 29, which is the first day the IRS will begin accepting 2023 tax forms. Employers are required to send employees their W-2 and 1099 income tax forms by the end of January.

TurboTax $141 million settlement

There’s a lot of background to the case. In May 2022, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a record multi-state agreement with Intuit, requiring the company to pay $141 million in restitution to millions of consumers nationwide, as well as suspend its “free, free, free” ad campaign.

Not everyone who’s used TurboTax in the past few years received money, but 4.4 million people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia did. Those were taxpayers who tried to use TurboTax’s Free Edition for tax years 2016 through 2018, were told they were ineligible to file free and went on to pay for a TurboTax product. Each person received approximately $30 for every year that they paid for tax-filing services that should’ve been free. The money was sent out in the summer of 2023.

At that time, Intuit sent a statement to CNET saying the company was “pleased to have reached a resolution with the state attorneys general that will ensure the company can return our focus to providing vital services to American taxpayers today and in the future.”

That response is also included in a longer statement posted on Intuit’s blog, which says the company admitted no wrongdoing and agreed to pay the money in order to “put this matter behind it.”

How can you get free tax prep?

Preparing and filing annual taxes is a headache for many. But more options for free preparation are emerging.

Free options from for-profit tax-prep companies

Some for-profit tax-preparation companies still offer free options — that’s what started this whole mess. Providers have different offerings, and you’ll need to check into what exactly is free and which options require payment.

Be aware that if your taxes are at all complicated, you may need to upgrade to one of the services’ paid versions. Most of them let you file a 1040, and some offer other basic tax needs.

H&R Block lists free offerings for “simple returns only,” meaning a 1040 plus limited schedules 1, 2 and 3. CNET’s review of H&R Block’s tax prep product says: “Its simple interface makes H&R Block easy to use online. I particularly like that it flags any mistakes as you input your tax information.”

Other services with some free tax-prep options include Intuit’s TurboTax (yes, settlement notwithstanding), TaxSlayer and TaxAct.

IRS Direct File pilot

The IRS is rolling out its own free file program, called Direct File, but only in 12 states, and only to those who meet certain eligibility requirements. No one is required to use it, but it’s another option.

Eligible taxpayers must reside in Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington or Wyoming. That includes most states without state income taxes and some that have, or are developing, a state-tax filing solution. Other states will be added later.

But just living in a pilot state isn’t enough to qualify you. It’s not an option for those with gig economy or business income, who itemize deductions, or who claim the Child and Dependent Care Credit, Saver’s Credit or the Premium Tax Credit. The Direct File page on the IRS site lists full details for the kind of income, credits and deductions you can have in order to use the free system.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly

If you’re over 60, you may be able to use a program called Tax Counseling for the Elderly. (Just ignore any negative connotations of the word “elderly” — Brad Pitt is 60, after all.)

This program uses IRS-certified volunteers to provide free assistance and basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals at community locations across the nation. A locator site lets you enter your ZIP code and find a nearby provider of this free tax help.

VITA program

Those who are under 60 but fit other requirements can also receive free tax help through VITA, the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. In addition to the elderly, this program helps low-to-moderate income individuals (generally those making $64,000 or less), persons with disabilities and limited English speakers file their taxes. The same locator site helps qualified individuals find a provider.

AARP Tax-Aide

Tax-Aide, a similar program from AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, offers free tax assistance to anyone, although their special focus is on those who are over 50 or have low to moderate income. They have a help locator site as well.

MilTax

Those who are in the military can have special tax needs. The Defense Department provides a suite of free tax services called MilTax, which includes tax prep and filing software tailored for military life, and comes with personalized support from tax consultants trained in military-specific tax situations. Interested military members can call 800-342-9647 or use live chat to schedule a consultation with a MilTax expert.