Low income Americans can file their taxes for free, but odds are they ended up paying anyway.
ProPublica found that tax filing giant Intuit is deliberately concealing search results for its free filing service, instead pointing all consumers toward its paid products. While users visiting TurboTax’s homepage will be greeted with what looks like free tax software, the software’s parent company usually finds a way to charge anyone using the product along the way. The manipulative design choice echoes recent conversation around dark pattern design and likely explains why free filing services remain underutilized.
Intuit’s true free filing software is called TurboTax Free File. Compared to the company’s main TurboTax portal, TurboTax Free File is much more difficult to find. That service, designed to make the process free for low income filers individually making less than $34,000 a year, is part of an agreement between tax filing companies and the IRS stipulating that a free option must be provided for lower income filers. In the course of reporting, ProPublica found that Intuit competitor H&R Block uses the same tactic to bury its own free service, H&R Block Free File.
To effectively bury its free filing service, TurboTax included a snippet of code in the page’s robots.txt file instructing search engines not to index it. The code was spotted by a Twitter user Larissa Williams and Redditor ethan1el.
Instead of pointing users toward its free file tool, TurboTax funnels the vast majority of users toward its paid and premium services, whether they qualify for free filing or not. The Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat Ron Wyden denounced the tactic as “outrageous” in a statement to ProPublica, indicating that he intended to bring the issue up with the IRS.