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Tax Refund Advances Appeal to More Cash-Strapped Americans

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In this March 21, 2015 photo, Brittney Freison, dressed as Lady Liberty, waves to motorists near the Liberty Tax Service office in Berea, Ohio. Wary of rising fees, federal regulators are eyeing ways they can assert tighter oversight upon paid tax preparers who cater to an expanding market of cash-strapped families anxious for their tax refunds. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

In this March 21, 2015 photo, Brittney Freison, dressed as Lady Liberty, waves to motorists near the Liberty Tax Service office in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Hope Yen, ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
WASHINGTON (AP) — Cash-strapped Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances, prepaid cards or other costly services when getting tax preparation help, according to new federal data raising concerns among regulators about whether consumers are fully informed about the fees.

Regulators are looking to increase oversight of preparers amid the rise in “refund anticipation checks,” a type of cash advance especially popular among low-income families who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, the government’s $65 billion cash benefit program. The advances are being marketed as a way to get fast refunds or defer payment of tax preparation costs.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says some consumers have complaints about refund anticipation checks centered on advertising, quality of service or fees.

The bureau is finalizing the first rules on prepaid debit cards, including those for tax refunds, that would require “easy to understand” disclosures upfront about costs and risks.

Refund anticipation checks rose to roughly 21.6 million in 2014, up 17 percent from 2011, according to IRS data provided to The Associated Press. About half the purchasers are EITC recipients; roughly 84 percent are low-income, according to the data. Industry analysts project the payment advances and their fees will become more widespread as tax preparers seek to boost revenue.

Currently, refund anticipation checks and prepaid cards make up 10 percent of industry giant H&R Block’s revenue and more than 20 percent of Liberty Tax Service’s, according to earnings reports.

Both companies said they are committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make tax-filing decisions, including use of refund anticipation checks. They said the payment advances offer added value, such as convenience.

The Internal Revenue Service has been pushing Congress for new authority to regulate the $10.1 billion tax preparation industry after an appeals court last year barred it from requiring tax preparers to undergo background checks and testing.

“It’s the wild, wild West,” said Nina Olson, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate, describing the current state of the industry. She called the level of risk for abuse in pricing and quality of service unprecedented.

The National Association of Tax Professionals supports certification of providers to ensure a minimum level of competency. But the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit against IRS, says new licensing requirements and other oversight aren’t the answer.

“We should do more to increase competition, not drive independent tax preparers out of the market,” said Dan Alban, an attorney for the group.

The average tax-preparation fee for 2014 returns is $273, up 11 percent from two years ago, according to a survey by the National Society of Accountants. But there’s wide variation, with fees of $400 or more, according to the National Consumer Law Center.

Netran Washington, 40, a materials handler in Cleveland, says he’s been going to a neighborhood tax preparer for four years, eager for a fast refund. Washington readily agreed when asked if he preferred to pay for the tax preparation later.

Washington says he was later surprised by a $500 fee that included the cost of a cash advance.

Still, he kept going each year until a friend suggested the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, an IRS program providing free tax preparation services to low-income families. The IRS-certified tax preparer found a filing error that had cost Washington $1,000 in unused tax credits and helped him file an amended return. “It was very upsetting,” Washington said.

Four states — California, Maryland, New York and Oregon — require preparers to undergo training. The California attorney general’s office recently requested information from H&R Block about its refund anticipation checks, which range in cost from $34.95 to $59.95; at issue may be whether the fees may be subject to strict truth-in-lending laws, the company said in financial filings. H&R Block emphasized that it was a request for information, not a lawsuit.

Consumer groups in Colorado and Ohio are pushing proposals to require greater disclosure.

In Ohio, a federal court two years ago barred the owner of Dayton-based Instant Tax Service from doing business after finding various abuses, including defrauding mostly low-income customers. “Taxpayers should have the ability to research and compare prices,” says David Rothstein of Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland.

In his budget proposal, President Barack Obama asked Congress to give IRS and the Treasury Department explicit regulatory authority and to increase penalties for certain tax filing errors due to willful or reckless conduct. Legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but prospects remain uncertain in a GOP-controlled Congress unhappy with the agency’s investigations of the tea party and also its role in implementing Obama’s health care law.

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Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.

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Follow Hope Yen on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hopeyen1.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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100 Diverse-Owned Oakland Businesses Could Receive a $10,000 Grant from Comcast

Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian American small business owners in Oakland can apply for a $10,000 grant from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which will issue 100 grants for a total of $1 million.

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Comcast RISE/Courtesy of Comcast

Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian American small business owners in Oakland can apply for a $10,000 grant from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which will issue 100 grants for a total of $1 million.

To be eligible for the grant, businesses must:

• Have established business operations for 3 or more years

• Have one to 25 employees

• Be based within Oakland, California city limits

The Investment Fund is the latest extension of Comcast RISE – which stands for Representation, Investment, Strength, and Empowerment – a multiyear, multi-faceted initiative launched in 2020 to provide people of color-owned small businesses the opportunity to apply for marketing and technology services from Comcast Business and Effectv, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable. If a business is not eligible for the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, applications are also open for marketing and technology services. In fact, 228 businesses in California have been selected as Comcast RISE recipients.

“Like many others, my small business was impacted by the pandemic. Thanks to the Comcast RISE program, I can reach new audiences,” said Judi Townsend, owner of Mannequin Madness and Oakland resident. She has benefited from the program twice, once with the production and placement of a TV commercial and then with a technology makeover.

“The application process was much more straight forward than other grants. I encourage my fellow eligible business owners to apply for the grant and the other benefits.” To help drive outreach and awareness about Comcast RISE and provide additional support, training and mentorship, Comcast has also awarded a $50,000 grant to the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

“The economic effects of the global pandemic have been felt worldwide, including significant impacts here in Oakland,” said Barbara Leslie, President & CEO, Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. We know that our small, local, woman-owned and Black, Indigenous and People Of Color businesses – who are responsible for creating the beautiful tapestry we call home – have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. We applaud Comcast’s vision, through the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, to ensure that small businesses that exist today can be a part of Oakland’s economic and social fabric both tomorrow and for many years to come.”

Comcast RISE is part of a larger $100 million Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative that Comcast launched last year. In June 2020, Comcast NBCUniversal announced the development of a comprehensive, multi-year plan to allocate $75 million in cash and $25 million in media over the next three years to fight injustice and inequality against any race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation or ability.

Grant recipients will also receive a complimentary 12-month membership to the coaching program from Ureeka, an online platform for entrepreneurs, to help them build skills, gain more customers and become financially stable. Eligible businesses can apply online at www.ComcastRISE.com from October 1 through October 14, 2021 for one of the 100 $10,000 grants. More information and the applications to apply for either the grant program or the marketing and technology services are available at www.ComcastRISE.com.

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Mayor Breed, Supervisor Mar Launch Grant to Support Storefronts Impacted by Vandalism

Up to $2,000 in financial relief available to repair storefront vandalism at neighborhood businesses

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SF Storefront Vandalism Grant Program Banner/Photo Courtesy of City of San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development

Mayor London N. Breed and Supervisor Gordon Mar announced Wednesday the launch of the Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant program, which provides up to $2,000 in financial relief to restore and repair damages from vandalism at neighborhood storefronts. The program launches during a time when many small businesses are recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Opening and operating a successful small business in San Francisco was becoming increasingly difficult, and the pandemic has made it that much harder,” said Breed. “It has never been more critical for us to provide support to our small businesses in every way that we can, which not only means making it easier to open and operate a small business, but also providing relief when they face challenges. With the launch of the Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant, we are letting our small business community know that we have their back and will fight to ensure that they can continue operating for years to come.”

The Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant provides financial relief to restore small businesses impacted by deliberate actions that result in the destruction or damages of storefronts. This program will offer either $1,000 or $2,000, depending on the total cost incurred to repair physical damages. The $1 million program is designed to serve more than 500 small businesses with gross revenue of less than $8 million that can provide proof of damages from vandalism incurred since July 1, 2020.

The fund will directly support small businesses with financial relief in the aftermath of a crime to restore the harm done. The fund will also allow small businesses to make improvements that enhance security and prevent crime. This includes replacement locks, a new security gate, fixing an alarm system, adding new lighting, replacing windows, etchings on windows, and many others. Improvements are available on a first-come-first-serve basis, based on fund availability.

The Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant is one tool in preventing crime and improving safety in neighborhood commercial corridors. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) also funds programs to help small businesses and neighborhood organizations improve safety through ambassadors and activations to increase foot traffic and community patrols. The fund is not meant to replace the loss of stolen goods and does not include damage to shared spaces.

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a surge in burglaries and vandalism in every neighborhood targeting small businesses already struggling with unprecedented economic challenges. As we work to prevent these crimes and strengthen safety on our commercial corridors, we must also respond immediately to provide relief to mom-and-pop businesses with direct and tangible support as they recover from these incidents,” said Mar. 

“Following requests from businesses in the Sunset, I worked with Mayor Breed and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to create the Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant and secured an initial $1 million funding allocation,” said Mar. “The fund will provide financial relief to small businesses in the aftermath of a crime to restore the harm done, including direct costs of property damage or getting a replacement lock or new security measures.”

To apply, eligible businesses are asked to provide receipts, photos of damages and furnish a report from the San Francisco Police Department or from 311 in the case of graffiti. Applications can be found by visiting oewd.org/VandalismRelief.

“On February 26 at 4:00 a.m., a burglar managed to break into my small business without activating the alarm. An hour later an opportunistic looter came into my store and stole additional merchandise. Small businesses are already hurting hard from the pandemic and these crimes are a gut punch to small businesses,” said Michael Hsu, owner of Footprint on Taraval.  

“Since hearing about the Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant, I’ve put in my application to get up to $2,000 to help provide some relief to my business. We need more programs like this to support small businesses in our neighborhood that are struggling from being victims of burglary and vandalism. I’m thankful for our city leaders for initiating this program. Together with the community and leaders, we will get through these tough times.”

“Since the pandemic, I have heard so many stories from small businesses that have been burglarized or vandalized. As a small business owner, myself, I feel and understand their pain and loss,” said Albert Chow, president of People of the Parkside Sunset, a Taraval merchants and residents association. “The Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant is a safety net that is critical to ensuring that our small business owners are able to recover.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, San Francisco has provided immediate and ongoing support for small businesses, including making available more than $52.8 million in grants and loans to support more than 3,000 small businesses, in addition to tens of millions of dollars in fee and tax deferrals, and assistance applying for state and federal funding. This includes legislation introduced and signed by Mayor Breed to waive $5 million in fees and taxes for entertainment and nightlife venues and small restaurants.

“As we reopen and rebuild, many of our small businesses continue to struggle to make ends meet. These challenges can feel almost insurmountable when small businesses also become victims of vandalism” said Kate Sofis, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.  “San Francisco’s Storefront Vandalism Relief Grant will help alleviate the financial hardship caused by deliberate acts of damage to property. It is one of many tools the City has to support our business community and the vibrancy of our neighborhoods as we work together towards economic recovery.”

“The San Francisco Post’s coverage of local news in San Francisco County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.”

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A Store for ‘The People’ in East Oakland

The People’s Store is open Tuesdays through Saturdays between 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.; Sundays and Mondays 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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The People's Storefront, Photo courtesy of realtor.com

The People’s Store, located in East Oakland, is a boutique that sells small batch African clothing, jewelry, crystals, and sage along with natural personal care products.

Customers rave about the natural shea butter, black soap and oils that are found in the store. The owner sells products wholesale and retail.

Located at 2366 High St, Oakland, CA 94601, they can be reached at  (510) 698-4371. The owner supports the local community, supporting small, local entrepreneurs by stocking the shelves of The People’s Store with their products. Check out their IG for giveaways, events and discounts.

The People’s Store is open Tuesdays through Saturdays between 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.; Sundays and Mondays 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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