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Here Are Your Stories of Being Tricked Into Paying by TurboTax. You Often Need the Money.

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If you make less than $34,000 a year, you should have been able to file your taxes for free on TurboTax. That’s because of a deal the industry made with the IRS called Free File.

But we’ve heard from dozens of people who could not figure out how to file their taxes for free on TurboTax even though they were eligible to do so. It’s not their fault: Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, makes it intentionally difficult to find and use its truly free version, Free File. Among other things, it keeps Free File from showing up in search results and refers to it by a confusing name: TurboTax Freedom Edition.

More than 40 people have told us they sought out TurboTax’s free option but ended up having to pay fees that cut into money they needed for their families’ rent, grocery and student loan bills.

Here are some of your stories:

“Those $200 would have helped us pay for rent”

Lucy Imperial says she is unemployed and recovering from chemotherapy. Her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and only works part time. The couple also have two disabled sons living with them, who don’t bring in much income.

To make rent this year, the family has relied on a series of short-term loans. They were counting on this year’s tax refund to pay some of that debt back. Imperial wrote: We “were charged almost $200 for TurboTax while earning $32,877. I was never offered a free edition. Those $200 would have helped us pay for rent.”

The refund will cover a full week’s worth of groceries

Kathy Marshall wrote: “My husband makes around $19,000 on disability and I make around $4,400 as commissions. [TurboTax] insisted because we sold a piece of property last year, despite the fact that it was a loss, we still had to pay because it was an extra form.”

Marshall called TurboTax on Thursday morning and managed to get some of her money back. The first customer service representative she spoke to said she would not be eligible for a refund. The second, whom she describes as “much nicer,” agreed to give back the full $99.98 she’d paid in fees. She said the refund will cover a full week’s worth of groceries for her family.

“I make $15 an hour”

Martin, who asked that we use only his first name, works as a freelancer in Los Angeles. He was charged a $154 fee by TurboTax. He wrote: “I’m 36 years old. … I make $15 an hour. My rent is $1,560 a month (thankfully, I have a roommate who takes half of that load, but overhead individually rounds out to about $1,000 with bills). So do the math. … To suddenly be saddled with [a] $154 fee for a service I will only use one day out of the year, when I file, is the worst kind of injustice for someone in my position.”

“I ended up paying $103.95 (almost my entire refund)”

Greg, who asked us not to use his last name for privacy reasons, wrote: “I’m a renewable energy engineer but I only work a few hours a month as a 1099 subcontractor. I had the very experience you describe: having absolutely no choice but to pay for the premium version if I wanted to file (due to investments I had to report). I ended up paying $103.95 (almost my entire refund) when I made $5000 last year!”

“She is receiving social security, a military pension from her late husband, and a small dividend”

Craig Harbison helps his 87-year-old sister file her taxes every year. He wrote: “She is receiving social security, a military pension from her late husband, and a small dividend amount for an adjusted gross income of $11,009. This year’s charge to prepare and e-file state and federal taxes was $124.98.” He sent an email to TurboTax customer service after reading our story this week and got a phone call back within a few minutes. She got a full refund.

“You saved me $96.”

Jack, an active service member, wrote: “I was initially charged $96 for filing taxes through TurboTax this year. I was aware of and frustrated with the dark patterns they were using, but was tired and irritated enough to press through anyway. Upon hearing from your article that some people were successful at receiving refunds when they called in, I called customer support and asked for a refund due to eligibility for the Freedom edition. The support representative was very helpful and got me a full refund with no issue. You saved me $96. It’s more money going into savings.”

“It’s not a lot, but it’s $20. Which is not free”

Sandy Maxcy, 72, lives in Tyler, Texas. She’s semiretired and said she makes $27,000 in income through part-time work at a dermatologist’s office. She paid $20 in fees to TurboTax. Maxcy said: “I’m tightly budgeted. It’s not a lot, but it’s $20. Which is not free, especially when you’re budgeted to the nth degree.”

“That was a whole 1% of my total income”

Kaylie Woods in California tweeted:

“I am a graduate student and made <$10,000 in income”

And David Ben Eleazar in Staunton, Virginia, tweeted that he was charged $100 in fees:

A spokesman for Intuit previously noted that last year it processed 2.3 million federal and state returns through IRS and state Free File, which are the truly free versions. The spokesman said eligibility rules for TurboTax’s “Free Edition” — which puts many users on track to pay — “are stated on the Products & Pricing page, including multiple links identifying the ‘simple’ tax situations that are covered by TurboTax Free Edition and those not covered.”

What you can do to help:

Those are only some of the messages we’ve received. We believe there are thousands more people who have not written in and some of them are likely still unaware they should not have had to pay.

We want to get the word out to people who can use it to avoid paying fees or try to recoup ones they’ve already paid. To do this, we’re asking for your help.

For people you know:

People who are independent contractors or who have student loans and others making less than $34,000 are more likely to have unnecessarily paid. These people as well as others who have prepared taxes for friends and family should check to make sure that people who were eligible to file for free were not charged.

What to do: Please share this link explaining how to ask for a refund with friends and family who may be affected or know someone who is.

For people you don’t know:

Here are three things you can do to help accurate information reach the people who are searching for it:

1. Share the story on social media

Tweeting out a link to this story can help make the issue more prominent in search results and may cause it to trend on Twitter. The more our links are publicly shared, the more weight they are thought to carry in search algorithms.

Here is an example of what happens on Google when something trends on Twitter. Happy National Pretzel Day!

Tweet however you’d like, but just make sure to include the link to this story and tag @ProPublica and @TurboTax. We especially invite you to share your own stories, like the ones above, in case they reach someone in a similar situation.

Otherwise, here’s some sample text you can use:

Did you search for a free tax filing option? You probably couldn’t find it. @TurboTax Please share the link so more people will see this in search results. https://www.propublica.org/article/turbotax-just-tricked-you-into-paying-to-file-your-taxes

ProPublica reported that @TurboTax took deliberate steps to hide its Free File page from Google search results. Please share this link so that more people can find it and file for free. https://www.propublica.org/article/turbotax-just-tricked-you-into-paying-to-file-your-taxes

Here’s everything you need to know about filing your taxes for free with @TurboTax. Don’t pay if you don’t have to. https://www.propublica.org/article/turbotax-just-tricked-you-into-paying-to-file-your-taxes

And if this applies to you:

I just got a refund after @Intuit @TurboTax led me to pay a fee even though I should have been able to file for free. Please tweet out this link to keep other people from having to do the same. https://www.propublica.org/article/turbotax-just-tricked-you-into-paying-to-file-your-taxes

2. Did you try to get a refund? Tell us how it went, and let others know what worked on social media

A good number of readers have managed to get their money back by calling the company. We published some advice this week based on what’s worked for people who tried.

We hope you’ll keep sharing what works and doesn’t on social media where other people see it.

Here’s a Facebook post where we invite you to comment. And here’s a Twitter thread we invite you to reply to (the best way to do it is to hit reply to the very first tweet):

Bonus: Replying to these social posts will also help us in search. Include the link!

3. Do you have a blog or a website? Link to our story

Linking to our stories on other websites is a powerful driver of search traffic. If you have a website, a blog or a publication, your shoutout will help more people find this information.

To keep up with us and avoid missing a new Free File story, please sign up for our newsletter. We’ve been covering this since 2013 and don’t plan to stop.

If you’ve got more ideas on getting the word out, we’d love to hear them. Send us an email at getinvolved@propublica.org.

Kengo Tsutsumi and Jess Ramirez contributed reporting.

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