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Consumer Reports found that four popular do-it-yourself tax-prep services—H&R Block Deluxe, TaxAct Online Deluxe+, TaxSlayer Premium, and TurboTax Deluxe—might not be up to the task of delivering error-free returns.

Forty-one percent of consumers do their own taxes. Those who turn to online programs are looking for assurance that they’re getting what they’re due in a refund and not paying more than they’re required to pay.

A CR reporter recently reviewed the four programs and found at least one glitch in each of the services. These problems included outdated information, incomplete advice, and program designs that—in a couple of instances—could affect a taxpayer’s bottom line.

In one case, the CR reporter discovered an app design flaw that could potentially expose a user without secure phone settings to identity theft.

More on Taxes

The CR reporter discovered these problems as she input her own tax information into the programs’ guided online programs and apps, looked through their tax-information databases, and asked tax questions of the services’ human tax experts. (See more on how she did her evaluation, below.)

Our examination of the various online tax-prep programs was not exhaustive—you may have a tax situation or questions we did not evaluate or pose. But because of the problems we did encounter, Consumer Reports cannot endorse any of the products without some reservation. This tax season, using a tax pro may be a better option, especially if you own a business—or even have a side hustle—or have a complex situation involving dependents.

Here’s a rundown of the specific problems the CR reporter found.

Mistakes With a New Tax Break

The new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act allows for a credit of up to $500 for taxpayers supporting an adult dependent, or “qualifying relative.” So our reporter investigated how the services would help a user determine the eligibility of an elderly aunt.

Among the requirements for the tax break, the relative can’t have $4,150 or more in gross income—which includes only taxable Social Security income.

An H&R Block rep contacted through chat incorrectly told the reporter that the aunt’s Social Security income was too high to qualify for the $500 tax credit, without mentioning that only taxable Social Security income counts.

The guided H&R Block program properly asked whether the aunt had $4,150 or more in gross income. But when our reporter clicked on a link called “What’s gross income?” the Help answer that popped up wasn’t detailed enough about Social Security income to help her to complete the section correctly. A user doing the same could miss out on the $500 credit.

"We’re continually evaluating the way we provide assistance to our clients to ensure that they’re able to get access to help and that it meets their needs," an H&R Block spokesperson said when CR asked about the inconsistency.

TaxAct’s guided section on dependents—including its Dependents Tax Assistant tool—likewise left out details on untaxed Social Security income.

“We have not heard this as a point of confusion for our customers yet this tax season, though we take any suggestions we hear, whether from a customer or reviewer, under advisement and consideration for future improvements,” a TaxAct spokesperson said.

TaxSlayer erred the other way. Its interactive worksheet on dependents didn’t ask about the aunt’s income at all. Even without that information, the program granted our reporter the new $500 credit for the aunt.

A TaxSlayer spokesperson responded to our query about this by quoting a broad IRS definition of a “qualifying relative” that didn’t mention income directly. But an IRS spokesperson confirmed that an adult relative’s gross income must be below $4,150 to qualify for the credit.

“For someone who incorrectly claims this credit or any other tax benefit, the credit may be disallowed and interest and penalties may apply,” the IRS spokesperson said.

TurboTax’s crowdsourced AnswerXchange, which compiles searchable tax answers by TurboTax experts and users, didn’t get the answer entirely right, either. It said that no Social Security income counts in determining eligibility for the credit; in fact, taxable income does count. But the TurboTax program itself led our reporter to more complete information, so she arrived at the correct answer.

Old Tax Law Info in Databases

TaxAct’s Answer Center database of tax information included several references to tax law that has changed since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law for the 2018 tax year.

For instance, TaxAct referred to personal exemptions as if they’re still in use; in fact, they’ve been suspended until 2026. Another Answer Center entry was still telling customers they could deduct interest on up to $1 million of mortgage debt; in reality that limit has dropped to $750,000 for loans made after Dec. 15, 2017.

Those faults could, at the least, confuse taxpayers or make them assume they have tax benefits where they have none.

“Unfortunately, because our repository of tax information within the Answer Center is so vast, we are still working through updating all of it,” a TaxAct spokesperson told us. “The large majority was updated prior to the start of tax season.”

In its Knowledge Base tax information database, TaxSlayer had similar mistakes, including references to 2016 tax tables. TurboTax’s crowdsourced AnswerXchange also included outdated answers.

The TaxSlayer spokesperson thanked us for bringing the outdated information to her attention. “In most cases we add disclaimers at the top of each article to inform readers that these laws were affected by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” she said.

Error Not Discovered

TurboTax and TaxSlayer didn’t flag a mistake when we intentionally input too little in Medicare tax withholding from a W-2 wage form.

“Since not all W-2s have Medicare or Social Security withholdings, we only notify of higher withholdings as it could affect their tax return if too much is withheld,” a TaxSlayer spokesperson responded.

“There may be a tax return impact in this situation if the amount withheld is too high,” a TurboTax spokesperson wrote us. “There is no impact to the tax return if the number is too low.”

But an IRS spokesman told us the agency might send a letter to a taxpayer, flagging underreported Medicare tax. That might happen if the taxpayer had a high income, subject to an extra Medicare tax, he said.  

No Help at All

TaxAct’s tax experts failed to respond to our reporter’s emailed tax questions, posted in late February and early March. When we called TaxAct’s phone system for tax help multiple times over two weeks, we were told to call back because of high call volume. We never got through.

“Unfortunately, our call volume has been remarkably high the past few weeks,” the TaxAct spokesperson told us. “We’ve recently increased our bandwidth to assist with the influx of calls and emails. We apologize for the inconvenience and are focused on improving the experience for the remainder of the tax season.”

Personal Data at Risk

Our reporter also found a design flaw in TaxSlayer’s mobile app that could open a user up to identity theft. The app didn’t fully sign out the reporter when she pressed “Save and Log Out.” That meant that on a phone without activated security controls, anyone could enter the TaxSlayer app and find her Social Security number. Consumer Reports’ security and privacy testers confirmed the problem.

As a result, TaxSlayer released new versions of the app, which it said has a “new cleaner sign-out process” and a secured sign-in with biometrics.

The new app versions allowed the reporter to truly leave and lock up her tax info with “Save and Log Out.” She was able to use her fingerprint to unlock both apps.

CR recommends that TaxSlayer app users download the new version (iOS version 6.1.7 or Android version 4.11.8) to get the update. 

CR's Qualified Observations

If you want to use a DIY tax product to save money this year, read the following observations and check “What You Can Do,” below, to ensure a more accurate outcome and to protect your privacy and security. Also, read our full review for more on what we found from each service.

• H&R Block Deluxe is good for simple returns. Its guided tax-prep experience offers generally clear tax-law explanations and includes useful tools. It’s a reasonable choice for simple returns—say, you rent and have one or more W-2s. It costs $50 for federal and $37 for each state return. You’ll pay an additional $40 to chat with a tax expert.

• TurboTax Deluxe is user-friendly. We found that it clearly outlined how the new tax law affects an individual user. It’s also pricier, at $60 for a federal and an additional $40 for a state return. You’ll pay an extra $60 for its phone/videoconference service, TurboTax Live. Assuming you don’t have complex questions, you can probably use this successfully if you have wage income, a mortgage, and dependents.

• TaxSlayer Premium gives fast answers from humans. We got prompt, direct answers to our tax questions through chat, email, and phone, though not all were nuanced enough to completely rely on. Still, if you know what questions to ask and aren’t put off by a bare-bones user experience, it costs $37 for federal and $29 for state returns, with no additional charge for tax-pro help.

• TaxAct Online Deluxe+ is relatively inexpensive. Once you begin using it, the price won’t change. It may be suitable if you know what you’re doing. But you may not get through to a tax pro when you need help, from our experience.

What You Can Do

Follow these tips for getting accurate results and keeping your information secure:

If you’re uncertain about a tax question—or want to double-check an answer from your tax-prep service—you may find what you want on the IRS website. Its Interactive Tax Assistant page includes tools to help taxpayers determine whether someone is a dependent, whether they can claim an education credit, what filing status to use, and numerous other topics.

• Whenever possibleuse a program’s import function to transfer data from W-2s, and forms 1099 and 1098—as well as a PDF of last year’s 2017 tax return, if you’re starting with a new DIY service. With some DIY services, you also can snap and upload photos of your W-2s from your smartphone.

• Work with another person. When manually inputting information, enlist a trusted person to read the figures from your W-2s and other documents as you key them in. It’ll help you avoid input mistakes.

• Stay aware and be skeptical. Use an Internet connection you trust. Don't do your taxes in public or on a public computer. Watch for phishing scams, in which crooks send you bogus emails about your taxes or tax-prep service account. Read the privacy policies of the service. Use unique passwords—words or phrases that you don't use with any other account. If your phone has Touch ID or biometrics, activate the function for the app. If you pushed "log out," check to make sure that you can't get back in again without login credentials.

• Keep track of saved files, such as the tax-related PDF statements of your investment accounts. “I use an encrypted volume to store sensitive documents, just as a protective measure against curious snoopers,” says Robert Richter, Consumer Reports’ program manager for privacy and security testing.

How CR Evaluated Online Tax-Prep Services and Mobile Apps

To evaluate the four brands’ online versions and mobile apps, a CR staffer used her own tax situation: a household with two W-2 wage forms, a mortgage, a home equity line of credit, and charitable contributions. The staffer was on the borderline between itemizing and taking the new, higher standard deduction.

She used the least-expensive version of each service that would handle her situation and include the opportunity to get help from a tax professional through each available help channel (email, chat, phone, or one-way videoconference). The online products reviewed were H&R Block Deluxe, TaxAct Online Deluxe+, TaxSlayer Premium, and TurboTax Deluxe.

The reporter asked questions of each service’s tax pros to gauge accuracy and response time. In the pros’ responses, she looked for nuances that a boilerplate answer in a tax program might not provide—but that a human might know to bring up.

She also played around with each program, attempting to add a hypothetical adult dependent; inputting erroneous figures from a W-2 to see which programs noticed, and spot-checking each service’s database of tax information for accuracy and currency.

Finally, she considered how easy the systems were to use, including navigation and data entry. She did the same for each product’s mobile version, using an iPhone 7 and a Motorola Moto G6. She also used a Samsung Galaxy S9 for some biometrics testing. And she looked at special features and the depth of information that each brand provides.

Our electronics experts also ran diagnostic tests on the apps, mainly related to privacy and security.