Best Practices in Marketing per ASTPS
The last best practices posting on marketing and advertising was essentially excerpts from Circular 230. Today, I will be more original and practical by describing some of the other items that ASTPS considers best practices. Keep in mind that ASTPS is determined to remain the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for the tax problem resolution industry. Members should be cognizant of these industry problems and report any violations they encounter.
IRS Look-like Notices
One of the most onerous violations involves direct mail pieces that imitate actual IRS notices. There is not a week that passes without some of these ersatz (phony) notices being forwarded to ASTPS. As recently as yesterday a member presented one from PTR in Encino, CA. It turns out that PTR stands for Perfect Tax Relief and their screener claims they are “tax masters.” I’m not so sure it makes sense to refer to yourself as “tax masters” based on the reputation for consumer abuses that the Tax Masters firm of Patrick Cox earned in the recent past.
An aggregator is a firm that claims to secure engagements for professionals who will in turn assume responsibility for providing the services negotiated by the aggregator. The business models vary, but the common thread involves the aggregator marketing for tax problem resolution cases, collecting the fee from the troubled taxpayer, and paying over a (usually small) portion of the fee to the professional. Generally, the aggregator is unlicensed and has no credential for performing representation before the IRS. If they have issues with their business practices, they form a new corporation and go right back to the same practices. Their licensed practitioner/associate may find they cannot dispense with the problem so easily. A serious issue with most of these models is the lack of control on the claims, statements, and promises the aggregator makes to secure the engagement. Once the engagement is secured and payment is collected, the practitioner is expected to deliver the sometimes impossible outcome promised by the aggregator. When the outcome isn’t delivered and complaints are filed it’s the practitioner who has to face the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility. If the aggregator has too many problems – it’s simply time for a new name and the next round of consumer abuse.
Circular 230 does not prohibit contingent fees in certain types of engagements. However, it is apparent that the IRS generally frowns on them. If a practitioner is inclined to charge a fee on a contingent basis, the engagement cannot be for the filing of an original return and should only involve a service that the IRS is likely to review. ASTPS recommends clearly stated engagement letters for most tax problem resolution cases, but in the instance of contingent fees, the standard even higher. The engagement letter should clearly describe the fee to be charged and provide a sample of such calculation.
Disclosure in Marketing
Direct mail, email, website, and all other forms of marketing for tax problem resolution cases should disclose the website of the firm. The website should disclose the location of practitioner office(s), phone number(s) of the firm, the credentials of the practitioners, principles of the firm, predecessor and affiliated firms, and other names used by the firm, if any.
ASTPS recommends practitioners maintain regular contact with tax problem resolution clients. The most common complaint involves the taxpayer feeling that his representative has been non-responsive. It often takes but a five minute phone call to assure the client that their matter is being handled. The IRS cannot be hurried; nonetheless, practitioners often take the heat for the protracted time to handle a tax problem resolution case when it’s the IRS who has caused it. Practitioners should provide regular updates, even when it’s simply to say the IRS has not responded as yet.
Members are invited to offer more topics to be included in the ASTPS best practices. Simply post your comments on the blog or email the office with your suggestions. You can contribute to raising the public perception of the tax problem resolution industry.