U.S. taxpayers rushing to meet next Tuesday's tax-filing deadline should be aware of Web sites with URLs similar to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service's IRS.gov site that may charge for services available for free elsewhere, a tech trade group warned.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association's (CCIA's) warning Wednesday comes after warnings from the IRS itself last month. In some cases, other sites with IRS in the domain name may charge money for tax help and services, the CCIA warned.
A consumer survey, commissioned by CCIA in December, found that 47 percent those surveyed mistakenly believed IRS.com to be the official IRS website before they viewed it, and one-third still thought it was official even after viewing it. CCIA notified the IRS, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Treasury Department of the alternate IRS sites in January.
CCIA president Ed Black called IRS.com and similar Web sites deceptive. IRS.com has a U.S. flag symbol at the top of its home page, he noted.
"The fundamental business model is relying on deception and mistakes by consumers," he said. "Most people end up there not because they're looking for a private Web site. They're looking for the IRS."
But Kate Sidorovich, spokeswoman for IRS.com owner InterSearch Group Inc., noted that the site includes disclaimers saying it is not affiliated with the IRS.
The site includes links to online tax preparation Web sites that can charge money for their services, but IRS.com itself does not collect money from consumers, she said. Instead, the site collects money through business-to-business referrals, she said.
"The Web sites actually assists people to find online providers of tax services," she said. "We feel we support the IRS efforts."
The owner of IRS.net also disputed CCIA charges that the site is deceptive. Owner Bala Szabo leases IRS.net to a legal tax preparation service that, like other tax services, charges its customers, he said.
Owners of a third Web site mentioned by CCIA, IRS.org, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. But at the top of IRS.org is this notice: "This website is privately operated and is in no way associated with the Internal Revenue Service, which is located at irs.gov."
A CCIA spokesman said some of the sites have made cosmetic changes and posted larger disclaimers since the CCIA first raised its complaints.
Even if the sites aren't collecting money directly from consumers, they're still profiting through deception, Black said. "They're referring people to tax services that are charging people for things they may not have to pay for," he said.