2016! Three Words! Boom!

226749-Leap-Into-2016

Hey there 2016! In 2013, I officially put aside New Year’s Resolutions. This is because I was introduced to the concept of Three Words, by Tom Hood, who found this idea from Chris Brogan. I have found the three words to be a great way to give my year a point of consolidation and mindfulness. I have found the three words to be invaluable. I find myself bringing up these words in conversations and in my writing and I am sure I must sound like a broken record to some people. I am happy to be a broken record if this helps me live a life of greater focus and productivity. I am just about always trying to do too much and I have found these three words give me greater direction.

Last year, my three words were Receptive, Synergy and Service and I found these words coming up often during 2015. I faced several challenges during the year, I embarked on new ventures and my life took turns that I never imagined. During that time, my words from 2013 all the way through 2015 helped form my rallying cry.

As 2015 neared its end, I wondered what my words for 2016 would be. I took the time to look back and think about where I have been and then think forward to where I would like to go and what I want my compass to look like as I travel. Today, I have my words for 2016.

Learn: During my various adventures in 2015, I things thrown at me that I could either try to ignore or take lessons from. My brother got married and that brought a lot of my family together in one place. It is always amazing to me that, for as much as I think I know the stories of my family, when we come together there are new and incredibly interesting things that I learn. My husband and I also spent time together with his aunt where she regaled us with stories of her youth and his family history. As much as I think I know, I find that there are still more ways to expand my mind and that should I choose to, I can keep on learning. I hope to learn in formal settings, in informal setting and totally by surprise.

Fear: I am sure that at some point in my writing I have shared my irrational fear of rodents, a fear that is not very helpful for a person who lives in New York City. I remember once, years ago, I was living in an apartment an old building. The old buildings in New York are lovely to look at but come with holes, holes that mice like to climb through, especially when it gets cold. One evening, I was hanging out on the couch when suddenly a mouse scuttled across my floor. I was frozen on the couch, afraid to move lest the mouse and I collide. People tell me that the rodents are more afraid of me than I am of them; I beg to differ. I ended up calling my neighbor, from the couch and, luckily he came by and dealt with the mouse. Now, I am not about to dive into a close encounter with a rodent, but I am learning that the times that I have been able to get past my fears are the times that I have been able to have new adventures. I started my own business this year and I am learning to not let my fears about failure, about the unknown or about anything else hold me back. I am also having a great time exploring life and learning new things about myself and those around me.

Community: I say it all the time and it remains true – nothing happens without community. When I started my business I found support from friends, family and colleagues. I found support from strangers. Had I realized the power of community, I may have taken the leap earlier. An instrumental aspect of collaboration and synergy is community. As I continue on this incredible adventure, I want to be mindful of the great things that can be achieved by a community.

Just a moment to look back on my words from prior years:

2013 – Change, Discover and Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue and Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy and Service

And now: Learn, Fear and Community

I am unbelievably excited at the prospect of looking fear in the eye and saying, “bring it on.”. For it is through these experiences that I shall learn and it is with these moments that I shall be able to connect with my community and build that community. AND I have an extra day to do all of this this year. So, tell me, what are your words?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On the Record

gifts-for-christmas-fmkcvb0u

I first wrote about Scott London in April 2013, soon after he had been arrested on insider trading charges. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and was released early, for good behavior, earlier this year. I was listening to my regular Planet Money podcast last week and, like an awesome Christmas gift, they were interviewing Scott London about what he did and why he did it.

London spoke about how, when he was an audit partner at KPMG, he started sharing non-public information on his clients with a golfing buddy. It is not as though London did not know that what he was doing was both unethical and illegal. He speaks about how much training KPMG gave to employees, training that he himself gave at times. Yet, when his friend’s business was struggling and his friend asked for just a little help, Scott London was able to rationalize what he did. In his mind, the money that Bryan Shaw, the friend, was making was small and this made what he was doing not so bad. This is something that happens often in fraud stories. Most frauds start small, either because the fraudster is testing the waters or because the fraudster initially intends to just take a little to cover their perceived need. It is generally because the initial idea of a fraud is small so it does not seem like a big deal and will not hurt anyone. it is a good reminder that when you are looking into or for fraud, you should not just look for large amounts. The fraudsters are going to do what they can to stay under the radar and many are going to be committing in ways that minimize, in their minds, what they are doing.

All in all, Shaw paid London about $70,000 in cash and gifts, while Shaw made $1.27 million from the insider trading. I was amused to hear London’s shock at how much money Shaw made trading on the information that he got from London. You see, when Shaw asked for the tips, he proposed that they share the money equally. It was funny that London was shocked to find out that the person who had partnered with him in an illegal pursuit had been less than honest with him. I suppose he had not heard that there is no honor among thieves. I am not sure if he was surprised because he realized how much more money he should have been paid or if he thinks he would have nipped the insider trading in the bud had he known just how much money was at stake (making the crime a bigger deal than he imagined).

During the podcast, the Planet Money folk discussed whether insider trading is a victimless crime. They struggled to find who is hurt by the trading. They came to their conclusions about who is hurt and you can also read various others opine. When I look at insider trading and think about who can be seen as victims, I have a long list. If you are competing in what you believe is a level playing field but where some parties know more than you do, it is just about a given that those parties are going to beat you every time. And, in this day and age where many retirement and savings plans involve trading on the stock market, why would you even bother if you knew that there were people making lots of money, primarily because they had inside information that you were not privy to?

There are so many layers in the Scott London story that could fill a book and, one such book, by James Ulvog, about Scott London’s fraud is well worth a read. Hearing from Scott London himself was a great gift and is a lesson in insider trading, tone at the top, how easily a fraud can begin and the consequences of taking the path that he took. Thank you Santa and Planet Money!

Tagged , , , , , ,

When To Fold ‘Em

Sports-betting

We are a household of sports fans and this tends to be just about the only live television that we watch. Because we can’t fast forward through the commercials during live games, I have watched commercials about daily fantasy sports. A lot of commercials about daily fantasy sports (DFS). It doesn’t matter whether it is DraftKings or FanDuel, as they both seem just about the same. I have heard about how you can win millions, practically for free, and about how easy it all is. I know nothing about fantasy sports, and I have come away mostly irritated by how ubiquitous the advertising is than wanting to try out the daily fantasy sports scene. I also don’t trust them when they tell me that I could win money for nothing and, instead, I wonder how they could claim to give away so much money for nothing and still pay for the many, many ads that are everywhere we look.

Answers came to me at the beginning of October, when a DFS scandal hit the news. As the story went, a DraftKings employee released key information earlier than he should. This information, if known, would give someone a tactical edge when playing fantasy football. The same employee also won $350,000 betting at FanDuel. Even though this doesn’t look good, DraftKings says they are certain that, even with an extra $350,000 in his pocket, their employee did not act improperly – he merely made a mistake. As I read the story, I shook my head in disbelief. I was surprised by several things. First of all, I was surprised to discover that Daily Fantasy Sports betting is not considered to be gambling. Now, I know hardly anything about daily fantasy sports, so it may indeed be a game of skill and not luck. However, especially with terms like “betting” used when talking about it, it sure does look a lot like gambling. That said, interviews that I have seen and read show those who spend a lot of money on DFS referring to it as investing. Nevada recently shut down DraftKings and FanDuel, declaring that DFS is gambling and that the two companies need licences before they can operate in that state. So, in that regard, let’s go with more and more people are agreeing with me on the whole “is it gambling” question.

More surprising, though, was the employee betting. To have a company that runs the betting allow its employees to bet as well smacks of impropriety, regardless of whatever steps the companies claimed they took to keep things on the up and up. Both FanDuel and DraftKings would not let their employees bet with them but those same employees, armed with whatever insider information they might (or might not) have, were able to go to competitor sites and bet there. And bet they did and how surprised are we to find out that the top winners in daily fantasy sports tended to be employees of DraftKings and FanDuel (though never from their own employer, of course).

As I read articles and watched news pieces on what was going on in the Daily Fantasy Sports realm, I kept exclaiming, to anyone within earshot, “who thought this was okay? How could they think it was okay?”

I couldn’t believe that management at this company could look at the set up was acceptable. Maybe they did, or maybe they just thought they could get away with it but it has me wondering about what operation and control policies other entities have in place that either do not protect them and their assets, or even put them at greater risk. Just because you institute a rule, it does not mean that it is a good or useful rule. For instance, DraftKings employees, with all the inside information they potentially had access to, could not place a bet with their employer, DraftKings. However, they could log into FanDuel, their competitor and use their edge when placing bets there. And the policy was mirrored by FanDuel. Looking in from the outside, both companies appeared to be acting unethically, and just about always, perceptions are as powerful as reality. If it looks as though someone is having a $350,000 party with your money, the facts will matter very little to you.

It might feel very managerial to make rules in your organization, but if all they serve to do is fill operations manuals and make you feel good, they are achieving less than nothing. It is worse than not making rules at all because, at least when you don’t have regulations, you have no illusions about whether or not you are protected. On the other hand, creating a free for all entity may make you feel like the cool kid and may even have people clamoring to work for you. However, among those clamoring, it is almost guaranteed, will be those seeing ample opportunity to commit fraud and perhaps lay waste to your business. There are very important reasons why people like me preach setting up your business in ways that prevent and detect fraud and two of these reasons are protecting your assets and protecting your reputation.

Now, FanDuel and DraftKings are finding themselves on the defensive and being given the cold shoulder by entities who do not want to be tainted by the growing scandals. They are being investigated by state and federal authorities, and are now scrambling to clean up an image that would never have been sullied if they had formed their operating and control structures correctly and ethically, in practice and appearance, from the get go. Now they are tripping over themselves, doing things like creating self-regulatory bodies in order to regain the trust of the public. Judging from what I have read, that is not working very well – something that happens when a company has betrayed the public’s trust. Instead these companies are being put under the microscope and their reputation is taking a beating. They are on the defensive now and all of this could have very easily been avoided. If you are running a business, you should ensure that you consult with a qualified professional to avoid issues such as:

  • Conflict of interest in perception and reality;
  • Approaches that compromise your reputation; and
  • Procedures that may cross legal lines.

Spending time and resources doing things property in the first place is less costly, in dollars and reputation, than trying to clean things up after the damage is done. That kind of disaster can be very difficult to come back from. Is it something you are ready to bet on?

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Best! The Worst!

New-York-Marathon

Today is marathon Sunday in New York City and, for years now, I have lived less than a block from the marathon route. It is one of the most exciting days of the year for me and I love walking down to the end of my block to join the over one million spectators who line the 26.2-mile route to cheer on the runners. All too often, New Yorkers are thought of as people who just don’t care about others. Per the stereotype, it’s just keep out of our way, don’t look us in the eye and don’t do anything that will slow us down and we won’t have any problems. Marathon day is a day when I am reminded that the city is a city full of people who do things like come out to cheer and high-five strangers as those strangers test their bodies and spirits. I love it.

There are moments, such as the marathon, that bring out the best in people. Disasters, as sad as they may be, also bring out the best in people. People come out and give time, money and other resources to help those in need. Tragically, disasters also tend to bring out the worst in some people. Some among us see disasters as a great opportunity to take advantage of others, for personal gain. Some of the fraudsters are blatant in their unscrupulous ways because they are targeting the desperate among us. A current example is the migrant crisis in Europe, where refugees, seeking to escape dangers at home, will give up all their resources in the hopes of reaching a safer place. Instead, some hand over money to greedy criminals who then lead them into more danger and, sometimes, even death.

Other fraudsters are more slick in their strategies to profit from the suffering of others. In recent months, natural disasters such as fires and tropical storms, have left many in the United States needing assistance. Just in October, while communities in South Carolina were struggling to recover from flooding damage, warnings were being sent out because of an influx of fake charities. These counterfeit charities, preying on the generosity of those wishing to do something to help the displaced and impacted, were taking people’s money and doing nothing to help those in need. Just a couple of days ago in New York, a company agreed to pay a settlement of $700,000 for pretending to collect secondhand clothing to help charities. Instead, this company sold the clothing, paid almost nothing to the charities and made profits of over $10 million dollars, it is estimated.

Because, even in situations where we should be helping others, there are those who are looking to help themselves at the cost of those around them, it is important to be vigilant.

  • It was Halloween yesterday and parents were checking to make sure that the treats that their kids collected were safe for consumption. Yes, people may appear to be doing good things, but it is only smart to make sure that everything is above-board.
  • Even though it may seem like a drag, check up on who you are giving your money or time to.
  • The name may sound familiar, but make sure it really is who you think it is.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about something, it is okay to say no. There are many opportunities to give back to those in need and you will find the opportunity where you are sure that what you are doing is benefitting those who need it.
  • Don’t give your personal information to anyone.
  • If you believe that you have been scammed, contact your local authorities and report it.

Giving is a vital part of what makes us communities. Just make sure that you are giving to the right people and not the unscrupulous scammers around. You know, like that obnoxious person in the neighborhood who decides that they just have to cross the street as the runners are passing by. Don’t give that guy the time of day.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

While We Are Making Plans

surprise

Because I live in the Northeastern part of the United States, I have become one of those people who lives for the brief summer months. There are only a few brief months of warmth and sunshine (and, often, humidity) in which to have a fun life. There are outdoor shows, there is the beach, there are picnics and that’s just a small sliver of all that needs to be done before the cold and darkness return. In my case, I had also signed up for a half marathon, to be run in the middle of October. Summer was my chance to keep on running and build my endurance and distance. When I run, I run on streets and have to deal with cracks in the sidewalk, people getting in my way and traffic. I am always on the lookout to stay safe and not hurt myself. So, in addition to all the stretching and foam rolling (never enough) that I do in order to prevent injury, on top of all of the careful calibration of distance that I do so that I don’t hurt myself by doing too much too soon, I am also keeping a watchful eye on every step that I take in order to keep myself safe and sound during my run.

Well, on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, at the beginning of August, I stepped out of my apartment building and into the parking lot, armed with a whole lot of recycling to put out. The next thing I knew, I had tripped over something (turned out to be a concrete block) and I was stumbling. The recycling flew out of my hands and the first thought that I had was, “this better not mess with my running”. In an attempt to break my fall, I jammed my leg into the ground and a sharp pain shot up my leg. I crumpled, in my mind, elegantly to the ground. It turns out that for all my measures to protect my body, all it took was taking out the trash in order to fracture my knee. I ended up with my knee in a brace and using a cane (that I still have). Throw in a surgery that I had in September and it turns out that this summer was not the summer I had imagined at all. An acquaintance said to me that life is what happens while we are making plans.

Most people business owners, similarly, spend a lot of time and invest a lot into protecting their businesses from most expected challenges. Depending on the size and complexity of the business, this will range from control systems to detect and prevent fraud and waste, to various reports that business owners and management use to monitor how the business is doing. The question that stands though is, what are business owners and management doing to deal with the unexpected or the events that they hope will never happen? Does the business have a disaster recovery plan? Has the business taken steps to encourage tips that will help uncover weaknesses in control systems and catch fraud and waste? Does the business know what it will do when fraud and waste are uncovered? Yes we make plans and take precautions, but are we ready to deal with what happens when the unexpected happens? Are we ready for, you know, life?

Tagged , , , ,

Not Again…

I don’t know what life was like for you, growing up, but my youth was full of lectures. I never just got into trouble. I got into trouble AND I got a lecture to go along with it. We never just went on vacation; we went on vacation, had to write an essay about our experiences AND we got a lecture about how both things were important. We didn’t just discuss our report cards, good or bad; we discussed our report cards AND got a lecture about the long-term benefits of each class we were taking. The lectures often came with true-life stories about one or both of my parents, someone they knew or someone who lived in their “day”. I am not saying that I was lectured a lot, but I did hear some stories more than once. On the occasions that I tried to interrupt to say that I had heard the story, I was told either that there was a new lesson to be learned, or asked why, if I knew the story and the wisdom it imparted, I continued to make the same mistakes.

Well, at last, I get it. Because the other day, I came across a case that includes so many lessons on fraud that, if I were teaching a semester on fraud, I could use it as an example in just about every lesson. This is the case of Christopher Myles, a former bookkeeper in New York City. He worked at Central Park Realty Holding Corp., and some of its affiliates, and reported to the President of the company. Tragically, in May 2010, the President, suffered a stroke and ended up in “a comatose-like state until her death in February 2012”.

With the president incapacitated, no one stepped in to VERIFY Myles’ work. By the time September 2011 rolled around, Christopher was aware that he could pretty much do whatever he wanted without anyone really questioning what was going on. He knew that he now had the OPPORTUNITY to defraud his employer and he took advantage of this opportunity. True to the trend, Christopher Myles started his fraud on a small scale, using the President’s credit cards to pay for personal expenses. He escalated quickly and by early 2012, he was transferring funds out of her personal bank account in order to pay his and his mother’s bills. He did this until there was no longer any money in the President’s bank account. Myles did not let this empty bank account stop him though; he then started transferring money from the business accounts, first, into the President’s personal bank account and, subsequently, into his own personal accounts. On days when he felt particularly bold, or reckless, Myles would transfer money straight into his and his mother’s personal bank accounts. Christopher Myles had unfettered access to all of these accounts, both business and personal, and never needed anyone else to sign off on any of the funds he moved into and out of these accounts. The lack of segregation of duties made this fraud simple for Myles.

If anyone had been watching him and taking notice, they may have noticed that Christopher Myles was living beyond his official means. He used his ill-gotten funds to buy a new home, go on shopping sprees and fancy vacations. This is another red flag for possible fraud. Throughout this fraud, created falsified bank statements and recorded all of these illicit transfers as business transfers. Unfortunately, no one followed up closely on any of these untruths. Perhaps none of those looking at the fake bank statements understood how the company worked and what kind expenses would appear as out of character, or maybe no one was familiar with the ledger and how to analyze it. I am not sure, but, the result was that Myles was able to continue his fraud for over two years (just a little bit longer than the median duration of a fraud), until November 2013, when he resigned.

It was only when his replacement discovered the fraudulent invoices that Myles created, in attempt to disguise his embezzlement, that Christopher Myles’ theft was discovered. A forensic investigation revealed that, in two years, Myles had stolen about $1.3 million from his employer. Myles’ former employer reported all of this to the authorities and, in addition to an indictment for the theft, Christopher Myles is also facing tax evasion charges. This is because, in the manner of Al Capone, Christopher Myles did not report any of his fraudulently acquired income on his tax returns.

Almost like a bonus in the lesson that keeps on giving series, once his theft had been exposed, Christopher Myles sent an email to all parties involved. In this email, he RATIONALIZED his fraud, claiming that he was entitled to the funds because he was due a raise and compensation for having to deal with a difficult coworker.

As I read the press release about Christopher Myles’ indictment, my jaw hung open. I said out loud, “wow, this has all the classic markers; it’s unbelievable!” Yet, the markers are classic for a reason. There are probably a lot more lessons to learn from the story of Christopher Myles, but don’t get me started!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Checking Up

smile

Several years ago, I was working on an assignment that had me flying out to Boca Raton, Florida, every Monday and returning to New York City on Friday night. It was great because it was a brutal winter in New York City and pleasantly warm in Boca Raton. It was terrible because it was close to impossible to get anything done over the weekend. One week, I had to admit that there I needed to get one of my teeth looked at. It had been causing me some pain and I knew I had to sort it out before it started hurting a lot. My challenge was to find a dentist who took patients on weekend days and who I could get to easily. I found one online and went in to see him on a Saturday morning. He determined that I needed a filling fixed and he got to work. What I remember about that day is how incredibly painful it was and how unsympathetically the dentist kept ordering me to “be strong”. I was traumatized – so much so that I did not go anywhere near a dentist’s office for years after that. I knew I should, but the memory of the pain and a dentist who was in need of a heart kept me away. Other aspects of my body were very well taken of; I went to my annual physical and that was always a pleasure, compared to my dental disaster. I brushed my teeth but, other than that, they were pretty much on their own.

One nights, I fell asleep while sucking on a throat sweet and, the next morning, I woke up feeling as though my teeth were about to fall out of my head. I was in a panic; I was too young to be toothless. I was desperate and looked up dentists located close to my office. Thankfully, I was able to find a dentist, a few blocks away, who was able to fit me in that very day. As he examined me, a poem from my childhood, “Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth” ran through my head. Fortunately, this time around, I get to keep my teeth. My dentist was a great guy who doesn’t believe in causing pain and suffering and NEVER says to me, “be strong”. I did, however, have to go through a series of appointments to repair the damage that had accumulated over the years that I had avoided the dentist, dentist I could have avoided. I have not missed an appointment since, although I get nervous when the machine turns on, even just to polish my teeth.

Like my teeth, a business needs regular checkups to maintain its financial health. Yes, a lot of companies review their financials on a monthly or quarterly basis, but how many are assessing their control systems and taking steps to update and analyze how they prevent and detect fraud? The fact that the median length of a fraud is 18 months before it is detected and that many frauds can last many years as in the cases of Bernie Madoff and Rita Crundwell, to name a few high profile cases, implies that these steps are not taken often and rigorously enough. No one really thinks that it will happen to them and some people think that their finance department, accountant or auditor will keep them safe from fraud. This is because they do not fully understand the roles and duties of their auditors and accountants. Other people don’t want to spend the money on fraud prevention and detection. However, when you start thinking that Rita Crundwell stole over $54 million and a quick search of the internet brings up many other recent cases of embezzlement of millions of dollars that have been discovered. There are many more that either have not been recorded or are of lesser amounts.

Think about this:

  • Fraud goes on for an average of 18 months but many go on for much longer.
  • Usually fraudsters start out stealing a little money but as times goes on and they are not caught, the amounts stolen grow and grow and grow
  • The knowledge that a company has allowed theft to go on under its nose for years can negatively affect its reputation, leading people to believe that it may not be a safe and ethical place to do business

These are just a few things to think about when it comes to detecting and preventing fraud in your company. It only makes sense to get a qualified Forensic Accountant, Certified in Financial Forensics to assess and evaluate your companies systems in order to beef up your fraud prevention programs and also, perhaps to detect possible fraud? Now, I learnt a very painful lesson before I started to take care of my teeth. Do you want to learn a hard, and possibly expensive, lesson before you take proper care of your business?

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

All For Love

Al_Capone_in_Florida

“Valentine’s Day; red roses
It’s said that some have died for love.
In North Clark Street, Chicago
They died for money…”

It was with those words, uttered by Laurence Olivier, on a Paul Hardcastle song about greed, that Al Capone first fascinated me. It started with that tale of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – “It’s a good day to die,” the gangster laughed in a scene in the video – and it continued as I learned more about his legacy as a famous gangster. I mean, as perennially single as I have been most of my life, I have been known to don black clothing and disdain on February 14th, but to shoot a bunch of people on that day? That just seemed a little much. You couldn’t wait until the 15th? What kind of person does that? I found out that others were similarly outraged by Capone’s actions and expended a lot of time and energy trying to bring him down.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of Al Capone when I spoke with Meredith Engel of The New York Daily News. She was reporting on the financial issues faced by those in the marijuana business. Marijuana is legal in some states, such as Colorado and Washington, but is still illegal on a federal level. This dichotomy may lead to confusion on what income is taxable on a state level, where pot is legal, and on a federal level, where it is illegal.

What does this have to do with Al Capone? Well, despite being blamed for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, among other murders, and in spite of being investigated for racketeering and his bootlegging business, the authorities struggled to get Capone convicted on his gang-related crimes. However, there was a government agency that he had not seriously considered; the IRS. You see, it does not matter where your income comes from, be it from legal or illegal sources, you have to pay taxes on it.

It doesn’t matter whether you are selling pot or stealing from your boss, if you don’t pay taxes on that money coming into you, you cold find yourself in trouble with the IRS, ranging from interest and fines to imprisonment. Federal agents couldn’t find enough evidence to pin murder on Al Capone, but they were able to use forensic accounting methods to put together enough evidence to indict Capone on tax evasion charges. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, was fined $50,000, was charged $7,692 in court costs and $215,000 plus interested in back taxes.

Preparing a tax return can get rather complicated. Figuring what deductions, exemptions and credits you are eligible for can be a like navigating a maze. However, the most simple part of the tax return is the income that you start with. If you don’t want to get into trouble with the IRS – REPORT ALL OF IT, regardless of how you came about it.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

That’s Not How It Goes

canine_side-eyeI am a huge sports fan. Huge. It is just about the only time that I tend to watch live television. The drawback, in my opinion, is that I have to watch all the ads on television, even the ones that get on my nerves. It is a sacrifice I am willing to make in order to get my game in real-time but, sometimes, I wonder. We are in the midst of basketball and tax seasons and the two have, apparently, come together to try to give me an aneurism or, at the very least, high blood pressure. You see, there are a variety of tax preparation related ads, declaring that it is time to get the mountains of money due to you and how easy it is to just do it all yourself, while you’re at it. I just hold my head and mutter, “no, no, no, no!”

Ad after ad trumpets that the product advertised will get you the largest tax refund around. So, what happens when you file your taxes and you don’t get a big refund; maybe you don’t get a refund at all? Do you get upset? Do you feel that your tax preparation software or professional has done wrong by you? But a refund is the government paying you back money that you overpaid them in the first place. Getting a large refund doesn’t mean that you lucked out and won the government lottery; it means that, over the year, you sent the government too much money and now the money is sending that money back to you, interest free.

Refund tales aside, there is the matter of how complicated the tax code is, something that even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) writes about. The 2014 Tax Guide, a publication that the IRS puts out to help guide individuals who are filing their taxes is a daunting 288 pages long and that’s before the references in the guide for further information on the subjects covered. So, I am sure you can begin to understand my frustration when I see ads that imply that preparing a tax return is as simple as baking a cake. It is unclear how long the tax code is currently, but what we do know is that it gets longer and more complicated by the year.

Computer software is incredibly helpful, when it comes to tax preparation. However, it is paramount to keep in mind that the software is a tool and it will not automatically make you an expert, knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the tax code. If your tax return is straightforward, the chances are that you will be okay filing your own return. Say, however, that you have a business; do you know which of your expenses are deductible and which are not? If you are married, and you decide to file separately, instead of jointly with your spouse, do you know what the differences are between the two? What about if you have spent the year speculating, buying and selling assets, or if you gambled a lot and have significant winnings or losses? The software can only work with what you give it and what if the software doesn’t ask you the right questions in order to get as much information needed in order to have as accurate a tax return as possible?

At the end of the day, the IRS holds you responsible for errors in your tax return and the amount of taxes you pay (and what you claim as a refund). The last thing you want is to be hit with a notice telling you that you owe the IRS a bunch of money because, when they do that, they tend to also charge you interest and penalties. Some tax preparers will tell you that they will cover only penalties and interest due to errors on a tax return, but what about the erroneous tax refund that you have already spent? Yup, only you have to deal with that. It seems like the punishment is a lot worse than just messing up a cake recipe, right? So, I’m thinking that getting a qualified professional, such as a CPA, to prepare your taxes might be worth your investment. Don’t go with someone who promises you the largest refund; go with someone who has studied the law and takes continuing education to stay up to date on the intricacies of the tax code and not only how you will be affected federally but also on a state and local level. Yeah, state and local – I didn’t even go into all that. Find someone who knows what they are doing and who can tell you what is going on and why. Or, you could try to tackle the bigger than the bible tax code and do it all yourself. You’ve got time, right?

Tagged , , , , ,