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By HOPE YEN
WASHINGTON -- Cash-strapped Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances, prepaid cards or other costly services when getting tax preparation help, according to new federal data raising concerns among regulators about whether consumers are fully informed about the fees.
Regulators are looking to increase oversight of preparers amid the rise in "refund anticipation checks," a type of cash advance especially popular among low-income families who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, the government's $65 billion cash benefit program. The advances are being marketed as a way to get fast refunds or defer payment of tax preparation costs.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says some consumers have complaints about refund anticipation checks centered on advertising, quality of service or fees.
The bureau is finalizing the first rules on prepaid debit cards, including those for tax refunds, that would require "easy to understand" disclosures upfront about costs and risks.
Refund anticipation checks rose to roughly 21.6 million in 2014, up 17 percent from 2011, according to IRS data provided to The Associated Press. About half the purchasers are EITC recipients; roughly 84 percent are low-income, according to the data. Industry analysts project the payment advances and their fees will become more widespread as tax preparers seek to boost revenue.
Currently, refund anticipation checks and prepaid cards make up 10 percent of industry giant H&R Block's (HRB) revenue and more than 20 percent of Liberty Tax Service's (TAX), according to earnings reports.
Both companies said they are committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make tax-filing decisions, including use of refund anticipation checks. They said the payment advances offer added value, such as convenience.
'Wild, Wild West'
The Internal Revenue Service has been pushing Congress for new authority to regulate the $10.1 billion tax preparation industry after an appeals court last year barred it from requiring tax preparers to undergo background checks and testing.
"It's the wild, wild West," said Nina Olson, the IRS' national taxpayer advocate, describing the current state of the industry. She called the level of risk for abuse in pricing and quality of service unprecedented.
The National Association of Tax Professionals supports certification of providers to ensure a minimum level of competency. But the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit against IRS, says new licensing requirements and other oversight aren't the answer.
"We should do more to increase competition, not drive independent tax preparers out of the market," said Dan Alban, an attorney for the group.
The average tax-preparation fee for 2014 returns is $273, up 11 percent from two years ago, according to a survey by the National Society of Accountants. But there's wide variation, with fees of $400 or more, according to the National Consumer Law Center.
Netran Washington, 40, a materials handler in Cleveland, says he's been going to a neighborhood tax preparer for four years, eager for a fast refund. Washington readily agreed when asked if he preferred to pay for the tax preparation later.
Washington says he was later surprised by a $500 fee that included the cost of a cash advance.
Still, he kept going each year until a friend suggested the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, an IRS program providing free tax preparation services to low-income families. The IRS-certified tax preparer found a filing error that had cost Washington $1,000 in unused tax credits and helped him file an amended return. "It was very upsetting," Washington said.
Four states -- California, Maryland, New York and Oregon -- require preparers to undergo training. The California attorney general's office recently requested information from H&R Block about its refund anticipation checks, which range in cost from $34.95 to $59.95; at issue may be whether the fees may be subject to strict truth-in-lending laws, the company said in financial filings. H&R Block emphasized that it was a request for information, not a lawsuit.
Consumer groups in Colorado and Ohio are pushing proposals to require greater disclosure.
In Ohio, a federal court two years ago barred the owner of Dayton-based Instant Tax Service from doing business after finding various abuses, including defrauding mostly low-income customers. "Taxpayers should have the ability to research and compare prices," says David Rothstein of Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland.
In his budget proposal, President Barack Obama asked Congress to give IRS and the Treasury Department explicit regulatory authority and to increase penalties for certain tax filing errors due to willful or reckless conduct. Legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but prospects remain uncertain in a GOP-controlled Congress unhappy with the agency's investigations of the tea party and also its role in implementing Obama's health care law.
-Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
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It seems Ryanair celebrated April Fools Day a little early.
The company's board has retracted its confirmation that ultra-cheap transatlantic flights -- as low as $15, before fees, surcharges and taxes -- are in the works. According to a statement issued to the London Stock Exchange:
Thursday's one-sentence statement contradicts what the Irish airline company announced earlier last week. CNN Money reported that it received an email statement Tuesday containing the following:
In the light of recent press coverage, the Board of Ryanair Holdings P.L.C. wishes to clarify that it has not considered or approved any trans-Atlantic project and does not intend to do so."
Financial Times reports that Ryanair's outspoken chief executive, Michael O'Leary, told the publication that the company made a mistake, saying "it was a miscommunication."
"The board of Ryanair ... have approved the business plans for future growth, including transatlantic. We would like to offer low cost flights between 12-14 European cities and 12-14 U.S. cities. The business plan is there, but it's dependent on attaining viable long-haul aircraft, and we estimate that's four to five years away."
What do you make of the news of Ryanair's U-turn? Are you surprised or did you think it sounded too good to be true from the start? Sound off in a comment below or on our Facebook page. Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free! We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash.
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Tilly's (TLYS) -- Up 27 percent last week
The biggest gainer on the New York Stock Exchange was Tilly's, moving up after delivering better-than-expected financial results. Net sales climbed 9 percent when pitted against the prior fiscal year's holiday quarter on the strength of expansion and store-level performance.
Earnings grew even faster at the retailer that stocks West Coast-themed apparel and footwear. Tilly's came through with a quarterly profit of 25 cents a share. Analysts were only holding out for net income of 22 cents a share.
Papa Murphy's (FRSH) -- Up 22 percent last week
The country's leading take-and-bake pizzeria -- selling pre-made pies that customers finish baking at home -- moved higher after posting blowout quarterly results. Revenue climbed 25 percent over the prior year, and its profit of 17 cents a share reversed a year-ago loss.
The concept's gaining momentum. Comparable-restaurant sales have climbed 8.4 percent over the past year. That's potent store-level growth, paving the way for Papa Murphy's to add 110 to 115 new locations to its empire of more than 1,400 pizzerias this year. It opened 95 stores last year.
American Airlines (AAL) -- Up 13 percent last week
Shares of American Airlines were cleared for takeoff after the carrier was tapped to be included in the S&P 500 (^GSPC). Being added to the 500-stock index usually results in a pop as index funds have to buy and hold the shares. The air carrier is making the most of the synergies associated with its US Air merger and welcome tailwind of low jet fuel costs.
iDreamSky (DSKY) -- Down 35 percent last week
Nasdaq's biggest loser was iDreamSky, which surrendered more than a third of its value after revising its guidance for the fourth quarter. The Chinese mobile gaming company is scaling back its outlook after one game was delayed and an existing title was challenged in terms of monetization given the competitive marketplace.
The problematic announcement led to a Stifel analyst downgrade on the stock. The company has now lost more than half of its value since going public at $15 this past summer.
Weight Watchers (WTW) -- Down 18 percent last week
The drubbing of Weight Watchers continues. The stock took a hit last week after a Credit Suisse analyst set a price target of $5 on shares of the diet management specialist. The stock's been taking a beating since announcing problematic quarterly results last month. It wrapped up 2014 with 2.5 million active subscribers, an unhealthy drop of 15 percent.
The stock has posted a double-digit percentage decline in three of the past four weeks, shedding 55 percent of its value along the way. That's not the kind of weight loss that the market likes to see.
Youku Tudou (YOKU) -- Down 15 percent last week
The company that some describe as the YouTube of China disconnected with investors after posting a sloppy quarterly report. Revenue climbed 40 percent since the prior year's quarter, but Youku Tudou posted a larger-than-expected deficit. It's the third quarter in a row that it has posted a loss that was wider than projected. The report sent the shares to a new all-time low.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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