TurboTax, facing lower revenues following the passage of President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law, decided to start targeting lower-income individuals with paid versions of tax filing software it used to offer for free, according to an investigation from ProPublica.
The move helped TurboTax parent company Intuit offset potential losses from the tax law, which doubled the standard deduction, or the amount you can subtract from your income before income tax sets in, and therefore made a number of users of its Deluxe version eligible for its free one.
In a ploy to keep steady the number of Deluxe users paying for its service, ProPublica reports that TurboTax began moving forms it used to offer in its free version that primarily helped low-income individuals file taxes into its paid Deluxe tier. That way, those people would have to upgrade to properly file taxes once they had already been lured onto TurboTax’s website with the promise of a free filing service.
In Intuit’s third-quarter earnings results announced in May, which included TurboTax revenue from April when US Tax Day occurs, the company’s “tuned product lineup, adjusted for the new tax legislation,” helped it increase its revenue by 10 percent, ProPublica reports. The company’s CEO, Sasan Goodarzi, told investors on a call following the earnings release, “We are big supporters of tax simplification. We believe that it enables consumers to take more control over their financial life.”
However, as ProPublica notes, the company made strategic decisions in how it advertises its free tier and what forms that tier does and does not cover to ensure more people would find themselves paying for its Deluxe service. And those individuals most affected happened to be the unemployed, disabled, and students facing mounting loan debt. Some of the forms include tax credits for the elderly and those who cannot work because of a disability, as well as forms for households putting money into a retirement account or collecting unemployment benefits.
ProPublica also details a situation where a graduate student, facing pressure to file her taxes quickly as Tax Day approached, was lured in by TurboTax’s advertisement of free filing. After being told she qualified for a tax break, she was told to sign up for Turbo Tax Deluxe to claim it, not realizing that TurboTax had made the form necessary to file her taxes, the 1098-E form required for deducting paid student loan interest, available only in Deluxe when it used to be available in the free tier. She ended up paying $151 after TurboTax piled on more fees, costing her much more than the $26 tax break she was promised.
Even more exploitative is that the individual in question was lured into TurboTax’s free tier, but not its Free File version. Free File is the free tax filing service the company is legally obligated to provide to US citizens who make under $60,000 a year due to a 2002 deal with the Internal Revenue Service, which agreed not to create a competing service that would undercut TurboTax’s business so long as the company provided free tax filing to eligible Americans.
Free File would have allowed the graduate student to avoid all of the fees and file her taxes for free, but TurboTax upsold her with a promised tax break and by removing the form she needed to claim deductions on paid loan interest. Back in April, a separate ProPublica investigation found that TurboTax was intentionally hiding Free File from Google search results, to reduce the number of people who can easily find it online. That same month, Intuit’s lobbying efforts resulted in a bill now moving through Congress called the Taxpayer First Act that would make it impossible for the IRS to ever offer free tax filing.