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Last-Minute Tax Filers, Beware of This Obamacare Scam

04/09/2015 08:58 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

For all stripes of rip-off artist, tax season might as well be called open season. Scams are legion, and navigating a solution after the fact can be somewhere between maddening and negotiating an Iran deal that everyone likes. Last month the IRS issued a warning that received scant attention from the media but nonetheless could impact millions of taxpayers this year -- particularly low-income, elderly and Spanish-speaking taxpayers.

The scam takes advantage of the Individual Shared Responsibility Provision of the Affordable Care Act. It's a penalty, but one with many exemptions. Because it is somewhat complicated, the new provision has become the object of many fraudsters' affections, especially during tax season.

This is the first year that taxpayers must confront this new liability. In the simplest of terms, if you don't have health coverage, you pay a penalty to the government.

The provision is intended to induce people to get coverage, since individual shared responsibility is all about increasing the number of Americans enrolled in health insurance plans in order to enlarge the pool to spread risks and reduce costs. Regardless of what you think of that theory, that's the informing principle.

So what is the penalty? While at first blush it doesn't sound like a huge amount of money, it's not nothing either -- especially to a family forced to live paycheck to paycheck. It can be 1 percent of a family's annual income (minus the tax return filing threshold for your filing status), with a maximum penalty being the national average cost of a bronze plan, or it can be calculated as $95 per adult and $47.50 per child under the age of 18, capping out at $285 for a family. The amount per adult will increase each year. In 2016 it will be $695 per adult and $347.50 per child, capping at $2,085 per family.

For an unscrupulous tax preparer the Shared Responsibility penalties can add up to quite a caper. How so? Because the scam involves A) taking advantage of the inherent complexity of the exemptions and B) pocketing the penalties. Sometimes the scammer claims he or she can reduce the cost of the penalty because they have created a pool for leverage, or they simply claim that paying them directly instead of the government is "how it's done."

The only thing you need to know is: That's not how it's done. The easiest way to avoid this scam is to remember one rule: Only pay the IRS. Period.

There is some good news. While you are required to report whether or not you have healthcare coverage on your tax return, the majority of filers will not have an issue here. It has been estimated that only 4 million of the estimated 30 million uninsured will have to pay the Shared Responsibility Provision in 2016. But here is where fraudsters see their honey pot, using complexity to fleece honest taxpaying citizens while exposing them to penalties when the IRS circles back to get money that was stolen from them.

Are you off the hook for paying the penalty? Here's the list of exemptions to see if they might apply to you (but consult your tax preparer, as this column is not meant to serve as a substitute for professional tax advice):

  • There were no "affordable" options for you, because available annual premiums were in excess of 8 percent your household income.
  • You had a gap in coverage for less than three consecutive months.
  • Your household income was below the return-filing threshold ($10,150 for an individual on a 2014 tax return).
  • You are not a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, nor an alien lawfully present in the United States.
  • You belong to a healthcare sharing ministry.
  • You belong to a federally recognized Native American tribe.
  • You are in a jail, prison or another qualifying institution -- such as a psychiatric hospital, etc.
  • You belong to a qualifying religion existing prior to Dec. 31, 1950, recognized by the Social Security Administration (SSA).
  • You qualify for a hardship exemption.

Hopefully it's not news that you need to choose a tax preparer wisely. There are many fly-by-night operations that are literally gone in the blink of an eye the minute April 16 rolls around.

That said, most tax preparers work hard to get you the best possible refund (or the lowest possible amount due) while remaining scrupulous and sticking to the letter of the law -- and that is no easy task given the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. If you are unsure about a tax preparer, you should ask for references or, even better, consult the IRS's searchable database of tax preparers that are recognized by the agency.

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