As tax filing season approaches, people who are expecting a tax refund for 2014 are eager to get their hard-earned money back in their hands. But with several different ways to get your 2014 refund faster, you have to be more careful than ever to avoid costly traps for unwary taxpayers.
The wrong way: tax refund advances
For years, taxpayers frequently used refund anticipation loans to get early access to their money. Under a refund anticipation loan, your tax preparer would figure out how much the IRS owed you and then offer to give you that money immediately. Taxpayers didn't have to wait weeks, or even months in some cases, to get access to their refunds.
The problem, though, was that businesses charged substantial fees in connection with those loans. In 2006, California's attorney general sued H&R Block (NYSE:HRB), alleging that its refund anticipation loan business failed to disclose the true cost of fees and interest charges associated with the loans. In 2010, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) voluntarily chose to stop offering loans, and later that year federal regulators ordered HSBC (NYSE:HSBC) -- which had provided loans through H&R Block -- to stop making refund anticipation loans.
Refund anticipation loans are now effectively unavailable, but they have been replaced by similar products. Refund anticipation checks and tax refund advances involve a similar fee-laden business model, with high interest rates and added fees that can escalate effective financing costs dramatically. Some lenders now offer loans that get around regulations by not being directly tied to refunds.
These products have also raised concerns. Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU), for instance, entered into a proposed class-action settlement agreement in May 2013 over allegations that a refund-processing service it offered to help users pay for its TurboTax fees violated prohibitions against refund anticipation loans. Whatever they're called, in most cases, paying huge fees just to get your tax refund for 2014 a week or two earlier isn't worth it.
The right way: electronic filing plus direct deposit
By contrast, combining two well-established methods -- electronic filing and direct deposit -- can expedite your tax refund for 2014 more without incurring big fees. The IRS said it issued 90% of refunds in less than 21 days after receiving those taxpayers' returns last year. Sending returns electronically starts that clock running a lot faster.
In addition, using direct deposit to have your tax refund for 2014 put into your bank account electronically saves even more time. Having your refund delivered by snail mail and driving to the bank with your paper check add to the overall time you'll wait for your refund.
Admittedly, using the combination of direct deposit and e-filing won't get you your 2014 tax refund immediately. But it will get you every single penny you deserve -- which is a lot more than some alternative methods can say.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool recommends Intuit. The Motley Fool owns shares of Intuit and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.