You may not realize it, but one out of every 10 Americans has been taking advantage of "refund anticipation loans" (RALs) -- short-term loans secured by taxpayers' expected tax refunds. The problem, though, is that it's really these taxpayers who are being taken advantage of.

Here's some scoop on the matter, courtesy of the folks at the Consumer Federation of America (read the full press release, in .pdf format, here):

  • The loans cost American workers $1.14 billion in loan fees in 2002, plus an additional $406 million in other fees.

  • The loans are generally only for a few weeks at most, and are often for just 10 or fewer days. In other words, taxpayers who expect to receive some moolah from Uncle Sam shortly are spending some of that money on fees in order to get their hands on the money just a few days earlier.

  • The fees involved include from $30 to $105 in "loan fees" and from $28 to $59 in "administrative" fees, plus a common additional fee of $15 to $30 for an "instant" (same-day) turnaround. The Consumer Federation of America notes, "This year, a RAL for an average refund of around $2,100 will cost a total of $132 (on top of tax preparation fees averaging $120) and bears an effective annual interest rate (APR) of about 180% (or 240% if administrative fees are included)."

  • Some state and local governments have been moving to restrict or prohibit RALs. (Yay!)

Those issuing large numbers of RALs include H&R Block (NYSE:HRB) and HSBC Holdings (NYSE:HBC) subsidiary Household Bank. Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU) smiled upon consumers recently, discontinuing marketing RALs through its widely distributed tax-prep software, TurboTax.

Financial columnist Michelle Singletary recently noted that "In a report last October by the General Accounting Office, investigators found what I consider some outrageous fees. The GAO said that one tax preparer interviewed indicated he would charge $174 for a RAL on a $700 refund, which equates, assuming a loan period of 10 days, to an annual interest rate of more than 900 percent."

Investors shouldn't fall for RALs, which prey on the uninformed. If you want a speedy refund, you have some options. Instead of filing your tax return by mail, for example, which can result in your refund arriving in six to eight weeks, you can file electronically and request a direct deposit to your bank account, resulting in a refund delivered in about two weeks -- or less.

Learn much more about taxes in our Tax Center and on our Tax Strategies discussion board, which you can try free for 30 days, along with thousands of other boards in our Fool Community.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article.