PERSONAL FINANCE

NJ Citizen Action pushes free tax-filing centers as deadline approaches

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Irvington resident Winston George felt robbed when he filed his 2018 tax returns at a Jackson Hewitt office on Springfield Avenue. They charged him $211 for the tax prep, and then advised him to get his refund quickly by using an American Express Serve debit card that the IRS would send his money directly to. Paperwork shows that Jackson Hewitt charged him $49.95 for an “Assisted Refund” fee, but we showed George that Jackson Hewitt’s website lists the price of the card as free with no hidden fees.

“Had I saw this, it would’ve been different. Then they really would’ve had an argument from me, because I’m like, ‘OK, on your site you say free,'” George said. “See, to me, it’s like they got a separate agenda. It’s not just also filling out your taxes, but to make whatever little money they can make on the side as a result of you coming into their establishment. And that’s where the card comes into play.”

George also claims that Jackson Hewitt’s tax filer never advised him that he could get his refund automatically deposited to his bank account, again, for free. When he went back to ask about it, George said they told him, “the lady who prepared my taxes probably forgot.”

“Unfortunately, Mr. George was not fully informed when he made his decisions to have his taxes filed at Jackson Hewitt,” said Leila Amirhamzeh, director of development at NJ Citizen Action.

After NJTV News contacted Jackson Hewitt, it agreed to refund George’s $49.95. The company stated, “We want to ensure transparency and we’re pleased that any miscommunication with the client about the optional products and services has been resolved to their satisfaction.”

George went to New Jersey Citizen Action, where you can get your taxes done for free, to file his 2017 returns. In fact, people often get referred by for-profit tax prep companies who don’t want their business.

“Because their income is too low. It’s not profitable for the paid preparer to do their taxes,” said the director of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance at NJ Citizen Action, Naomi Anderson. “They say, ‘Go to the free place, find a free place.’ You know, so people walk in, and they say, ‘Yes, Jackson Hewitt referred me. H&R Block referred me.’”

Anderson says changes in the tax laws have changed how people are filing.

“People are very skeptical about filing. They say, ‘The law has changed. On the news and media, it says everybody is getting back less, so why would I need to file?’ And what I do, I educate them and I said, ‘This is your money,'” said Anderson. “You are throwing away dollars on the table, so not filing, you are doing yourself a disservice of not getting your refund, no matter how small it is.”

The IRS reported some 40% of Americans still hadn’t filed by April 5. It expected more than 14 million people to request extensions. Citizen Action prepared 6,000 returns for free in 2018. But traffic is down this year.

“Last year, we would have people standing in the street when we opened at 8. We’re below,” said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of NJ Citizen Action.

A lot of people believe there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Free tax filing is a real thing, and it’s available statewide. To find a location near you visit www.nj211.org.