MONEY college savings

One Foolproof Way to Earn More on Your College Savings

handing money over
Investing in your state's 529 college savings plan can mean free money. PM Images—Getty Images

Tax breaks, matching grants, and scholarships can effectively boost your investment by an average of 6%.

Savers in many states don’t have to rely solely on the markets to build up a college fund. Grants or tax benefits can effectively boost the value of your investment in a 529 college savings plan by 10%, 20% or even 30%, according to a newly released analysis by Morningstar.

In the 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that offer subsidies to college savers who contribute to their home state’s 529 plan, the average benefit is a one-time boost worth about 6%.

In New Jersey, parents who seed a NJ BEST 529 account with $1,200 when their kid is about six and kick in at least $300 a year after that will qualify the student for a one-time $1,500 freshman scholarship to an in-state public university. That’s a return of 31.5% on a total investment of $4,800.

Most states simply give parents a tax credit or deduction for a 529 contribution, which translate into a lower state tax bill and thus more money in your checking account. That’s money you can use for anything—including adding to your 529 or offseting the cost of saving for any college.

Residents of Indiana, for example, qualify for a state tax credit worth up to 20% of what they invest in the state’s 529 plan, which can reduce a typical family’s state tax bill by $480. Vermonters get tax breaks typically worth 10% of their investments in their local 529 plan.

Five states offer tax breaks for an investment in any 529, allowing residents to shop for the best plan anywhere. Two of those five states reward both choices: Maine offers a 1.7% tax benefit for any 529 investment, but also provides matching grants for saving in the state’s 529. Pennsylvania’s has tax breaks worth about 3% for any college savings, but it also offers scholarships to hundreds of mostly private colleges across the country for those who invest in-state.

Fifteen states either have no income tax or don’t offer any subsidy to college savers. Check out this 50-state map to see whether to invest in your state, or out of state.

Beware of the Gotchas

The author of the Morningstar report, Kathryn Spica, says you should watch for two big potholes when trying to maximize these freebies.

1. High fees: Some states charge such high fees in their 529 plans that any parent with a child younger than, say, 13 should probably forgo the tax benefit and choose a low-cost, highly-rated direct-sold plan. But for parents of teens close to college, the immediate tax benefits can outweigh only a few years of higher fees.

For example, D.C. offers tax breaks that amount to a one-time 8.5% effective boost to your college savings. But D.C.’s plan charges a high annual fee of 1.35% of assets. Utah’s plan, which gets the highest rating by Morningstar, charges only 0.2%. Within eight years, D.C.’s higher fees would likely eat up your tax benefit.

2. Changing rules: North Carolina cancelled its tax break for 529 savings last year. And Rhode Island has stopped enrolling new parents in its savings match program, Spica says. Parents in states that end or slash tax benefits should take a few minutes to run the numbers and see which investment option best meets their needs.

The Value of the Tax Breaks

The chart below lists the states that offer benefits for investing in the home state 529 as of fall 2014. Morningstar’s estimated value of the subsidy is based on a family earning $50,000 a year and saving $2,400 a year for college. The fees are those charged for an age-based fund for a 7- to 12-year-old that employs a moderate (as opposed to conservative or aggressive) investment strategy.

The final column is Money’s recommendation on whether parents of kids younger than 13 should stick with their state’s best 529 option, or risk giving up the state’s benefit and shop for the best plan nationally.

If your state is not listed here, you won’t be giving up anything if you simply pick the best plan available. Here are Money’s recommendations for the best 529s nationally, based on a combination of the fund’s fees, the state’s tax benefits, and the ratings given the plans by Morningstar and Savingforcollege.com.

State Est. value of state tax benefit on savings of $2,400 a year Effective yield on $2,400 investment Average fee for moderate equity plan for 7- to 12-year-old Should parents of kids under the age of 13 invest in-state or shop?
Indiana $480 20% 0.57% In-state
Vermont $240 10% 0.45% In-state
Oregon $216 9.0% 0.38% In-state
District of Columbia $204 8.5% 1.35% Shop
Idaho $178 7.4% 0.75% In-state
Arkansas $168 7.0% 0.60% In-state
South Carolina $168 7.0% 0.12% In-state
Montana $166 6.9% 0.88% Shop
Iowa $156 6.5% 0.26% In-state
New York $155 6.5% 0.17% In-state
Wisconsin $150 6.3% 0.23% In-state
Georgia $144 6.0% 0.33% In-state
West Virginia $144 6.0% 0.32% In-state
Maine $140 5.8% 0.30% In-state
Virginia $138 5.8% 0.61% In-state
Oklahoma $126 5.3% 0.51% In-state
Alabama $120 5.0% 0.32% In-state
Connecticut $120 5.0% 0.40% In-state
Illinois $120 5.0% 0.19% In-state
Mississippi $120 5.0% 0.65% Shop
Nebraska $120 5.0% 0.48% In-state
Utah $120 5.0% 0.22% In-state
New Mexico $118 4.9% 0.36% In-state
Maryland $114 4.8% 0.88% In-state
Colorado $111 4.6% 0.39% In-state
Michigan $102 4.3% 0.28% In-state
Louisiana $96 4.0% NA In-state
Ohio $90 3.8% 0.23% In-state
North Dakota $68 2.8% 0.85% Shop
Rhode Island $38 1.6% 0.20% In-state
Pennsylvania Variable N.A. 0.38% In-state
New Jersey Up to $1,500 N.A. 0.77% In-state can pay if student definitely will attend a participating college
MONEY Taxes

IRS Eases Rules on Ebola Donations

The Internal Revenue Service has cut taxes on Ebola relief and simplified making contributions to fight the outbreak.

MONEY Taxes

How to Never Miss Out On One Valuable Tax Break

Odometer
James F. Dean—Getty Images

Workers who drive a lot for business can write off the costs. These three tools can make tracking those miles on the road easier.

More than 40 million Americans earn money while driving around in their cars, making them eligible for a valuable business mileage deduction from the Internal Revenue Service.

At 56¢ a mile, less than two business miles equals a dollar. So for someone driving 25,000 business miles a year, $14,000 in deductions is at stake.

Keeping an accurate mileage log used to be an arduous task involving a notepad and paper, but most people do not bother with the work. Many recreate their trips after the fact. Some just make it up. Do it wrong and you could get an audit.

“Getting a lot of round numbers means people either aren’t tracking or are rounding,” says P.J. Wallin, 33, a certified public account from Richmond, Virginia.

Bill Nemeth, an enrolled agent who represents clients in IRS audits, says most of his clients tend to exaggerate their business mileage and, when audited, it can be challenge to try to prove they actually drove the miles. Nemeth says he even uses Carfax reports from cars that clients have sold in order to document the actual mileage of the vehicles. In more than 25 years of doing taxes, Nemeth can recall only one client who presented a log that was clearly used daily.

MileIQ, which sells a GPS device that helps track mileage, surveyed about 1,000 of its users and found that only 36% of them had kept a written log previously. Another 18% admitted to making up numbers after the fact, 15% said they did nothing with their mileage, and 11% said they used their calendars to go back and recreate driving distances.

But in today’s highly automated world, apps and standalone GPS devices take the work out of the process, so there are no more excuses. Prices and functions vary, and some personal preference is involved.

Here are three different approaches – all of which are tax-deductible as a work expense.

MileIQ

This iPhone app (scheduled to be out soon for Androids) promises to be more automated than its cousins—always running in the background. It costs $5.99 a month or $59.99 a year. Lighter drivers, however, can use it for free. Users can log 40 drives a month before they would have to take a paid subscription, so you can take it for a test drive.

The idea is that the app does most of the work, although eventually users have to look over the results and eliminate listings that were not for business. Data from the app is regularly uploaded to the cloud, and reports sent automatically via email. Users can also customize the data.

MileIQ co-founder Charles Dietrich says the app actually learns from patterns and increasingly knows when a trip is of the reimbursable sort and when it is not.

Easy Mile Log

This device, which costs $149, is a small GPS tracking device you leave in your car. When you start a drive, press a button to note the trip is either work or personal. It will document the date and time of your travels, where you started, where you went and the distance. You can dump the data from the device onto your computer using a USB cord.

EasyBiz Mileage Tracker

At $2.99, EasyBiz Mileage Tracker is a cheaper app option, but not quite as automated as the others. Instead, it relies on the user to create what is basically a computer-assisted mileage log – starting and stopping each trip, while it notes the location and the distance via GPS.

Mileage Tracker allows users to customize report printing and add other entries – like tolls, for instance – that could come in handy when doing mileage reports.

MONEY Taxes

IRS Bumps Up Retirement Fund Contribution Limits

You can now save more in your tax-deferred retirement accounts.

Good news: The IRS has bumped up retirement account contribution limits for 2015 to reflect cost-of-living increases. So if you’ve been wanting to sock away more in your tax-advantaged accounts, next year is your opportunity.

Today’s announcement raises the annual contribution limit for 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan by $500 to $18,000. The catch-up contribution limit for employees over age 50 also increased from $5,500 to $6,000.

IRA contribution limits and IRA catch-up contributions, however, will remain the same, at $5,500 and $1,000, respectively, meaning older workers can still set aside $6,500 a year in these accounts.

This follows Wednesday’s announcement that retirees will see a 1.7% cost-of-living bump in their Social Security benefits next year.

Contribution limits are reviewed and adjusted annually to reflect inflation and cost-of-living increases. Last year, 401(k) and IRA limits remained unchanged from 2013 levels because the Consumer Price Index had not risen enough to warrant an increase.

For more details about the changes and more information about the new gross adjusted income limits for certain tax deductions, see the table below or the IRS website.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 12.20.19 PM

Read more from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:

 

MONEY mutual funds

Big Tax Bill Looms for Mutual Fund Investors

Even if you don't sell any mutual fund shares this year, you might owe big taxes on capital gains. Here's why — and here's how you can avoid the problem.

If you are the kind of steadfast investor who buys a mutual fund and holds it forever, prepare to pay for your loyalty next April, when you settle up your 2014 tax bill.

At the end of this year, many mutual funds are expected to distribute sizeable capital gains to shareholders who will have to pay taxes on them.

That is true of stock mutual funds that sold off last week after carrying forward big gains from 2013, and also may be true of the popular Pimco Total Return Fund, which was thrown a curve when star manager Bill Gross left Pacific Investment Management Co. in late September and the Pimco Total Return Fund was forced to sell appreciated bonds to pay off shareholders who left in his wake.

Here is why: Mutual funds must distribute realized gains to their shareholders every calendar year. Managers of both bond and stock funds have seen sizeable gains for several years running, but have not had to sell shares and realize those gains. This year, there have been some big selloffs that may have forced the managers to sell winning securities and realize those gains for tax purposes.

For individual investors, those gains might hurt more than they would have over the last few years, because a lot of investors have been offsetting their taxable gains for years with losses they carried over from the 2008-2009 rout. Now, with most of their losses used up, they will have full exposure to the gains. Long-term gains are typically taxed at 15%; those in the top tax bracket face a capital gains tax rate of 20%.

The Pimco Total Return Fund, for example, saw $48.4 billion in outflows through September, according to data from Morningstar and Pimco, and some analysts believe that could result in unusually high taxable gains.

“If Pimco sold bonds to meet redemptions at a gain, the remaining shareholders could suffer an inordinately large tax consequence,” said Tom Roseen, an analyst with Lipper, a Thomson Reuters company.

Through September, research firm Morningstar was estimating that Pimco Total Return Fund would pay out 2% of its net asset value in taxable gains, a high figure but one not out of the fund’s long-term historical range.

That means a person with $50,000 in that fund would see a $1,000 taxable gain, and — at the most common 15% capital gains tax rate — owe $150 in federal taxes on it.

Last year, the Total Return fund distributed 0.66% net asset value in gains. The year before, it distributed 2.31%, Roseen said.

Stock fund investors could be harder-hit, said Morningstar analyst Russel Kinnel. He estimates that U.S. domestic stock funds might be sitting on gains of around 20% and could end up paying 16% or 17% of their value to shareholders as gains. (When that happens, fund shareholders do not actually cash in the gain; they end up with more shares at lower prices.)

Note that none of this affects investors who hold mutual funds through tax-favored retirement accounts. They do not have to pay annual taxes on fund earnings.

For everyone else, there are very few ways to minimize the impact of those taxable gains. Here are some strategies that might help.

  • If you bought recently, you might consider selling quickly. If you have not seen much of a gain in a fund you bought, or if you have actually sustained a loss, you can sell shares and either use your capital loss to offset other gains, or at least get out before the gain is distributed. That strategy will not work if you have been in the fund long enough to rack up your own gains – then you will just have to pay taxes on them when you sell.
  • Think before you buy. The people who will get hardest-hit by these year-end mutual fund taxes are people who have not owned the funds for long. They buy in just before the distribution, miss out on the actual gains, but get hit with the taxable distribution anyway. Do not buy any funds this year until you have checked with the fund company to find out when it is distributing 2014 gains. If you think it is a fund that is sitting on big gains, wait until that date passes before making your purchase.
  • Take losses. If you own any stocks or funds that have lost money since you have held them, sell and reap the loss. It can offset those fund gains.
  • Relax. At 15% for most people (20% for top tax bracketeers), the capital gains tax is still much lower than regular income taxes. And there are worse things than having to pay taxes because you made money.

 

MONEY Tourism

Price Hikes Up to 150% Are Planned for Your Favorite National Parks

Entrance sign near Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, Yosemite National Park.
Entrance sign near Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, Yosemite National Park. Fred van Wijk—Alamy

A proposal is on the table to hike prices of admission, annual passes, campsite reservations, and more at roughly 130 national parks and recreation areas.

A broad proposal from the National Parks Service (NPS) first exposed by the Denver Post could make visiting some of the country’s biggest and best national parks significantly more expensive as early as next summer. Admissions to popular national parks such as Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake are likely to see price hikes of 50%, while prices at some lesser-known gems like Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park might rise upwards of 150%. Price increases are also being proposed for annual passes, campsites, boating permits, and other services at dozens of park and recreations areas.

Before storming the parks service in protest, bear in mind that even if the price increases are accepted, our national parks would remain one of the world’s great vacation bargains. The current price of a seven-day pass for a vehicle and all of its occupants at Yosemite is $20, rising to $30 if the proposal is approved. To make its case that the increases are necessary and appropriate, the NPS noted:

The current park entrance fees have been in place since 1997, when a seven day pass was increased from $5 to $20 per vehicle. According to the U.S. Bureau of labor and Statistics, $20 in 1997 is equivalent to $29.64 in 2014. This fee change will allow Yosemite to maintain consistent revenue while adjusting accordingly for inflation.

Likewise, the price of admission at Great Sand Dunes would rise to $10 per person up from the current rate of just $3 (there’s no flat vehicle rate offered), while the cost of an annual pass would increase from $15 to $40.

Park visitors could start to see the price increases as early as next summer, and/or fees might be incrementally hiked over the next couple of years. One of the reasons cited for the proposed increases is that the NPS is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, and it wants to commemorate the centennial with parks and recreation areas looking their finest.

None of this is a done deal, however. The parks service is allowing the public to weigh in with comments over the next couple of weeks, and at least in theory the response could have an impact on how the proposed price increases play out. What’s especially complicated about the matter is that the average Joe is being asked to submit comments related to each park’s price hike individually; there is no central spot where people can respond to the general idea of raising prices across the board. There’s one spot where you can offer your opinion on price increases at Yosemite, for instance, another for the price increases at Washington’s Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, and so on. (The nightly cost of an individual campsite at the latter would go from $10 to $18, by the way.) The dates for open commenting and public meetings at each park are different as well. The commenting session at Yosemite began on Monday and stretches through November 20, and there’s a two-hour meeting open to the public on November 12, while comments for Lake Roosevelt can be made through October 31, and three meetings are being held in nearby state-owned facilities this week.

The superintendents of each park also have some authority to decide if and how price hikes go into effect, though a broad range of parks—including Mount Rainier and Olympic in Washington state, Rocky Mountain in Colorado, and Glacier in Montana—are expected to follow through on some if not all of the proposed increases. Jon Jarvis, the NPS director, noted in a memo that there will always be “significant public controversy” about any price increases for use of lands that we as a nation own. Yet he stated that the increases “will allow us to invest in the improvements necessary to provide the best possible park experience to our visitors.”

Surely, many park goers will be upset by the proposed increases, and it would be surprising if a majority—or even a significant minority—of those commenting on the proposals were voicing their approval of higher fees. For some perspective, Kurt Repanshek, who runs the National Parks Traveler blog, points out that admission to Yosemite cost $10 a century ago, so we are more than due for a price hike:

When you think of how inflation has treated park entrance fees — that $10 fee charged in 1915 equates to $230.74 in 2014 dollars — entrance to the parks under the existing pricing structure might literally be described as a steal.

MONEY Taxes

4 Myths About the Home Office Tax Deduction

Man in home office
Make your home office work for you. Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Misconceptions about the home office deduction cause Americans to lose out on significant savings.

One of my favorite tax perks available to real estate investors as well as many other professionals is the home office deduction. It allows you to shift what would otherwise be personal non-deductible expenses into legitimate business write-offs. Although the break is not going to rank as your largest, it can provide you with a worthwhile amount of savings when used correctly.

For example, if you repainted your entire house for $8,000, and your home office accounts for 20% of your space, $1,600 ($8,000 x 20%) is now a legitimate tax deduction.

I am still surprised by how many people I meet who qualify for the deduction but do not take it, I suspect because of incorrect information.

Here are four common myths about the home office deduction, and why they should not deter you from nabbing the savings.

1. You need a room where you work solely on business activities- and nothing else.

It is true that you need a part of your home that is used exclusively for business purposes. That said, it doesn’t have to be a full room. If you have an area within a room where you review your property management reports, that should qualify. Just make sure the separation is clear, perhaps with a partition.

What doesn’t work: if you use your dining table to run your businesses, since its primary function is to eat. Some people tell me they never dine at the table and only work from it. Still, even in that case, I recommend not claiming your dining room or dining table as your home office. The IRS has successfully challenged in court homeowners who have tried that argument.

Related: What Can I Deduct? The Answer That Will Save You on Real Estate Taxes

2. Your home must be the only place you do business.

Often people don’t take the deduction if they have another office where they can work from time to time. Yet the IRS specifies that your home office must be the “principal” place of business, but not the only one. Thus even if you have access to other offices you’ll still qualify, assuming you do most of your work in your home.

Here is an example: I met recently with a client who owns some out-of-state rental houses, which are cared for by a local property management company. As an investor, he simply reviews the management reports and deals with the professional caretaker from his home office. Previously he never took a home office deduction because he was told that his home did not count as the primary place of business, since a property management company cared for the homes and it was located outside the state. But he got bad information. As long as you are managing your properties from your home office, the fact that you have property managers out-of-state won’t disqualify you.

3. Taking the deduction is complex.

Starting in 2013 the IRS simplified the method for calculating home office write-offs. Anyone who fails to keep precise records will appreciate the new rules.

Rather than holding onto receipts and calculating your actual expenses, you can instead opt for a standard deduction of $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet, for a total annual write-off of up to $1,500. So you have no tasks over the course of the year.

Related: 7 Common Tax Mistakes of New Real Estate Investors

4. You’re more likely to get audited.

One of the most common myths is that taking the deduction flags to the IRS that you should be audited. But that isn’t true today. Changes to the rules, including the new simplified method introduced in 2013, have made it easier for people who truly work out of their homes to qualify. What’s more, research shows that close to half of Americans have home offices that they work from at some point during their lifetime.

Missed taking the deduction last year? Even if you already filed your tax returns and only now realize that your home office is eligible, simply file an amended return for last year to claim your refund.

 

More from BiggerPockets:
4 Foolproof Steps to Painlessly Resolve Tenant Complaints

10 Surefire Ways to Fail As a Beginning Real Estate Investor

5 Secrets to Increasing the Profit of Your Rental

 

Another version of this article originally appeared on BiggerPockets, the real estate investing social network. © 2014 BiggerPockets Inc.

MONEY Taxes

5 Things to Know If You Still Haven’t Finished Last Year’s Taxes

Practicing golf in office
You can't put off finishing your taxes for much longer. Jan Stromme—Getty Images

Attention tax procrastinators: Time’s nearly up if you filed for an extension last spring.

Remember the relief you felt last April when—faced with a looming tax-filing deadline—you simply applied for an automatic six-month extension for your 2013 return? The dread is back. October 15, next Wednesday, is the filing deadline for everyone who took advantage of the government’s grace period. As of the end of September, more than a quarter of the nearly 13 million taxpayers who had filed for an extension had yet to file, according to the IRS. If you’re one of those procrastinators, here’s what you need to know.

1. This time the deadline is real. No more extensions (one exception: members of the military serving in a combat zone). If you don’t file and pay your tax bill, you’ll get a failure-to-file notice. And you’ll start the clock on a failure-to-file penalty (5% of your unpaid taxes per month, up to a max of 25%), a failure-to-pay penalty (0.5% of your tax bill per month, up to a max of 25%), and interest (currently 3%).

“You could have three things adding up month by month if you do nothing by October 15,” says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for Wolters Kluwer, CCH. Of course, if you’re expecting a refund, there’s no penalty for not filing—and also no refund until you do.

2. Do nothing, and the IRS will eventually file for you. And you may not like the results. That’s because the IRS will base your tax bill on the information it has, such as the income reported on your W-2, notes White Plains, N.Y., CPA Paul Herman. But they won’t know other things that could lower your tax bill, like all the deductions you’re entitled to or what you paid for stocks, bonds, or mutual funds you sold last year.

3. If you can’t pay your entire bill, throw out a number. File your return for sure—that at least saves you the failure-to-file penalty. When you do, request an installment agreement (Form 9465), and propose how much you can pay a month, or the IRS will divide your balance by 72 months. If the offer is reasonable, says Herman, the IRS may accept it.

4. Free help hasn’t gone away. Through October 15, you can still use the IRS’s Free File program, which makes brand-name tax-filing software available at no cost if your income is $58,000 or less. Earn more than that, and you can still use the free fillable forms at the IRS website.

5. You have one less way to cut your taxes. You’re out of luck if you had hoped to trim your tax bill by funding an individual retirement account for 2013 (depending on your income, as much as $5,500 was deductible last year, $6,500 if you’re 50 or older). Even though you got an extension to file, the deadline for opening an IRA for 2013 was last April 15. (Make a note: You have six months to open a 2014 IRA).

However, if you switched a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA last year—which meant a tax bill on your conversion—you still have until October 15 to change your mind. That’s something you might do if the value of your Roth has since dropped. You can “recharacterize” the conversion (in effect, switch back to a regular IRA) and then convert to a Roth again later, this time realizing a smaller taxable gain and owing less in taxes.

Finally, if you find yourself doing your taxes every fall, think about changing your ways. Maybe invest in a better system for organizing your records? “If you waited this long,” says Herman, “try to begin planning earlier for next year.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

What Happens If You Get Your Obamacare Subsidy Wrong

140603_FF_QA_Obamacare_illo_1
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. What happens to someone who has overestimated his income and received the wrong subsidy amount for a marketplace plan? Does he get a tax refund when he files? What if he underestimated his income and was paid too much? Does the system catch it when he reapplies for coverage in 2015? Will he be prevented from renewing automatically?

A. If you received too small a subsidy because you overestimated your income, that amount will be added to your tax refund—if you’re receiving one—or it will reduce the amount of tax that you owe, says Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and an expert on the health law.

Similarly, if your subsidy was too large because you underestimated your income, you may have to pay some or all of it back. If your income is more than 400% of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four that enrolled for 2014), you’ll owe the full amount of any subsidy overpayment. At lower incomes, the amount that must be repaid is capped.

How your 2015 subsidy will be handled when you renew your coverage this fall will vary. If you live in one of the states where the federal government runs the health insurance marketplace, you may be automatically enrolled in a 2015 plan and, unless you contact the marketplace to update your income and other details, your subsidy amount will remain the same next year. That’s probably not in your best interest, since changing marketplace policy details and changes in your own financial situation could mean you either may not receive the total amount you’re due or you’ll be on the hook to repay a too-generous subsidy. The system, however, won’t prevent someone from renewing next year, automatically or otherwise, because his subsidy amount was incorrect.

“The best thing to do is to get in touch with the exchange to make sure they have the most up-to-date information,” says Jost.

States that operate their own marketplaces may handle enrollment differently. Those states may, for example, require everyone pick a new plan and update their subsidy eligibility information instead of simply auto-enrolling them, says Judith Solomon, a vice president for tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Taxes

Don’t Fall for the ‘Steve Martin’ IRS Phone Call Scam

Caller ID showing phone scam
Rod Crow—Alamy

Callers claiming to be government agents with names like "Steve Martin" and "Jack Dawson" say that you owe unpaid taxes, and you'll be arrested asap if you don't pay up. It's a big scam—apparently, one that's spreading.

A phone scam that first appeared nationally a year ago and has ripped off victims for more than $5 million is showing no signs of slowing down. In October 2013, the IRS issued a warning concerning a “pervasive telephone scam” that had popped in nearly every state in the country—victimizing recent immigrants in particular—that played out in the following way:

Victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting.

The Treasury Inspector General for the Taxpayer Administration (TIGTA) and the FTC followed up with warnings about the scam during tax season, by which time more than 20,000 suspect calls had been reported, and victims had been bilked of more than $1 million. Based on how lucrative this con has been for fraudsters, it’s no wonder that the calls keep on coming. By August, the IRS was compelled to send out another warning, alerting the public that the number of complaints about such calls had surpassed 90,000, and losses by victims had exceeded $5 million.

In recent weeks, amid continued reports in Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, and other states, the FBI issued an alert with more details about the “intimidation tactics” used by callers. There may be threats to “confiscate the recipient’s property, freeze bank accounts, and have the recipient arrested and placed in jail. The reported alleged charges include defrauding the government, money owed for back taxes, law suits pending against the recipient, and nonpayment of taxes. The recipients are advised that it will cost thousands of dollars in fees/court costs to resolve this matter.”

It has been widely mentioned on scam warning Internet forums that the voices on the end of the threatening phone calls often have thick accents—variously described as Indian, Middle Eastern, or Asian—and that they identify themselves as IRS agents with names that are sometimes generic American (Julie Smith, John Parker, Barry Foster) and other times seem pulled directly from Hollywood movies. “Steve Martin,” the original “Wild and Crazy Guy,” is one of the favorite fake names used by the scammers. “Jack Dawson,” the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic character in “Titanic,” is another. At times, the callers have been known to become abusive and use foul language, telling the call recipients, “Don’t be stupid” and “your ass will wind up in jail.”

All of these “problems” can go away, the scammers say, if the victim makes a payment of $500 or $1,500 immediately—ideally in an entirely untraceable way, such as a prepaid money card or wire transfer.

Before rolling your eyes and thinking you’d never fall for such a scam, note that the con involves a caller ID trick that makes it look like the call is originating from a number that is indeed used by an IRS office. Yet as the FTC warned, “You can’t rely on caller ID. Scammers know how to rig it to show you the wrong information (aka “spoofing”).” What’s more, callers often have some of the victim’s personal information handy, such as the last four digits of a social security number. Further calls and bogus “IRS” emails may follow the original call, in order to the make the demand for payment seem more legitimate.

Rest assured, it’s not. If you’re at all uncertain if you’re dealing with a scammer, bear in mind the following:

• The IRS almost always contacts people about unpaid taxes first by mail, not by phone.

• The IRS never asks for immediate payment over the phone, never requests payment information (for example, a debit card number) over the phone, and never specifies a certain form of payment for unpaid taxes.

• It is not standard procedure for IRS agents to call after normal office hours are over, nor to threaten people that more calls will follow if you don’t comply immediately, nor to swear at taxpayers.

If you do get a call that you suspect to be a scam, do NOT give out or confirm any personal information, and most certainly do NOT wire money or make payment of any sort. Hang up the phone right away, and then report the incident at the TIGTA hotline (800-366-4484). File a complaint with the FTC as well.

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