Saturday, November 17, 2012

State Tax Refunds And Debit Cards

I have noticed that more and more states are increasingly requiring individual income tax refunds to be electronically deposited or received on a debit card.
What got me thinking about this is Virginia’s decision to require electronic refunds, beginning with the 2013 tax season.  One can have his/her refund electronically deposited or loaded onto a debit card. There will be no physical checks.
Virginia is joining Louisiana and Oklahoma with its electronic refund/debit card policy.
I find myself recalling IRS issues with identity theft and debit cards this past filing season. The IRS has estimated that more than $5 billion was refunded to identity thieves in 2011.   A majority of these cases used direct deposits, including debit cards. Thieves prefer debit cards to a paper check, which may require a photo ID matching the taxpayer’s name to cash it. Makes sense.
So what does the identity thief need? He needs a name and social security number, preferably from someone who will not be filing a tax return. An address would also be nice. Find a foreclosed house. Maybe put a new mailbox on it. The thief fills out a tax return, making up the wages, withholdings and so on. As long as he is the first person using the identity for the tax year, it is – as one U.S. Attorney phrased it – a “remarkably simple crime to commit.” Couple this with a hard-to-trace debit card, and the IRS is almost sending cash through the mail.
Do you find yourself wondering how it is cheaper for a state to issue debit cards rather than a physical check? Say that Kentucky issues 1,200,000 refunds using physical checks. Kentucky has the cost of the checks, plus equipment, personnel costs and postage. If Kentucky associates with a debit-card-issuing institution (I am thinking the to-be-formed Hamilton Bank of the Bluegrass, as an example), they instead send one transfer to The Hamilton Bank, as well as a data base of the individual refunds. No mess, no fuss. One can see the savings to Kentucky.
I would – I mean The Hamilton Bank of the Bluegrass would – issue the debit cards. How does The Hamilton Bank make money? First, there would be the float while the debit cards carry balances. Second, there could be merchant fees upon use of the card. Third, The Hamilton Bank would allow one to withdraw cash, but only at conveniently-located-Hamilton-Bank-ATM locations in greater Cincinnati, northern Kentucky and the Bluegrass. Any other ATM’s would trigger a fee. Fourth, The Hamilton Bank would charge fees for inactivity, replacement cards and etc.  I am thinking this could be a sweet deal for me, er… I mean The Hamilton Bank of the Bluegrass.
Kidding aside, I do understand the states’ interest in moving tax administration to an all-electronic format. Practitioners have already seen some of the advantages of electronic processing: verification of receipt and filing, record of filings and payments, transcript deliveries and etc. Electronic refunds fit into this structure. However, the government cannot electronically refund to someone who does not have a bank account, which is how we wind up talking about preloaded debit cards.

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