Tax Scams Are Targeting Uninsured, I.R.S. Warns

The Internal Revenue Service is warning consumers about tax scams involving the Affordable Care Act and penalties imposed under the law on people who go without health insurance.

In some cases, the agency said, unscrupulous tax preparers tell clients to pay the penalties directly to them, and they keep the money.

Most people do not owe the payment at all because they have health coverage, such as Medicaid or employer-sponsored insurance, or qualify for one of many available exemptions.

“However,” the I.R.S. said, “if you owe a payment, remember that it should be made only with your tax return or in response to a letter from the I.R.S. The payment should never be made directly to an individual or return preparer.”

The creators of these schemes have been “targeting taxpayers with limited English proficiency and, in particular, those who primarily speak Spanish,” the tax agency said last week in a bulletin for consumers.

Undocumented immigrants appear to be particularly vulnerable. They are sometimes told that they must make penalty payments directly to a tax preparer because of their immigration status, the agency said.

The health law requires most Americans to have health insurance. For those who flout the requirement, the penalty, also known as a shared responsibility payment, may be $695 or more this year. For many people, the last day to sign up for insurance is Sunday, when the third annual open enrollment season ends.

Unauthorized immigrants are not required to have insurance, though they are often required to pay taxes, and many do so. “If you are not a U.S. citizen or national, and are not lawfully present in the United States,” the Internal Revenue Service declared, “you are exempt from the individual shared responsibility provision and do not need to make a payment.”

The exemption also extends to young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children and have received a temporary reprieve from deportation under a program created by President Obama in 2012 and known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Ana Cecilia Lopez, a tax lawyer in Bellingham, Wash., said many tax preparers did not ask enough questions to determine their clients’ citizenship status — a crucial factor in deciding if they owe a penalty or are exempt under the Affordable Care Act.

“Some tax preparers are not asking even the most basic questions about a person’s legal status,” Ms. Lopez said. “They just ask: ‘Did you receive insurance? Did your employer give you insurance? No. Did you get health insurance on your own? No. O.K., now you owe this penalty.’ ”

Ms. Lopez said she worked with migrant farmworkers who had been in the United States for decades without legal status but had paid income taxes. Tax compliance is considered to be evidence of good moral character and could be helpful if they seek immigration benefits or legal status in the future.

Christine Speidel, a tax lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid, welcomed the government’s effort to warn consumers, including undocumented workers in particular. “This population is very vulnerable to exploitation by tax preparers,” she said.

The I.R.S. has tried to regulate certain paid tax-return preparers, requiring them to pass certification tests, pay annual fees and take continuing education courses. But in 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rules, saying the agency had no authority to adopt them.

As a result, the I.R.S. said, some tax professionals who had been suspended or disbarred in disciplinary proceedings have again been allowed to prepare tax returns for consumers.

The national taxpayer advocate at the I.R.S., Nina E. Olson, has found problems with unlicensed tax preparers.

In the absence of national standards, she said, “a person can hold himself out as a return preparer with almost no knowledge or skill by simply sitting with a taxpayer and working through” the questions in tax preparation software.

President Obama has proposed giving the I.R.S. more authority to regulate tax preparers. But Republicans, still angry with the agency over what they see as its improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups, have been reluctant to give it additional authority at this time.

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