Popular tax service faces fraud allegations

Instant Tax Service's website
Instant Tax Service's website

(CBS News) Suppose you try to file your income taxes, and the IRS tells you a company has already done it for you. Then the company refuses to send your refund until you pay a huge fee.

This nightmare has been happening to people across the country and the company, Instant Tax Service, is now facing charges of tax fraud.

Like a lot of Americans, Lashondra Nash and her family have had some rough times.

Nash, of Baltimore, told CBS News, "I'm a single mother struggling through some mishaps last year. I lost everything. So I'm in the process of trying to build. Rebuild."

Pretty much all she had left to rebuild with was her job in customer service in Baltimore and the promise of a tax refund.

"My main goal at the time was to get this money to help pay some bills and do some things for me and my two girls," she said.

Nash went to Instant Tax Service, which offers quick and easy cash loans in advance of income tax refunds. She applied for a loan and signed a stack of papers.

The company, started in 2000, has been hailed as a "Top 10 Black-Run Company." Many of its 1,200 locations nationwide are in low income areas where needy customers are attracted by promises of fast cash.

As it happens, Instant Tax turned down Nash's loan request. So she told them not to file her taxes. A few weeks later, she learned Instant Tax had filed her taxes electronically, and instructed the IRS to send them the refund check - a check they planned to keep unless she coughed up $800 in fees - a third of her refund.

"They used the information that I had put in for my loan," Nash said.

Nash said the didn't even have her W-2 form. "I'm thinking this, 'This can't be because I know I know I said it and I know I said it more than one time. And I knew you were clear on it,' and her words to me were 'Yeah, you did tell me not to.' So why are they filed if I told you not to?"

It turns out Instant Tax had included a tax form in the stack of loan papers Nash signed, which she admits she didn't read carefully. And the IRS doesn't require a W-2 form for e-filing.

Nash is far from alone. Our CBS affiliates found similar complaints about Instant Tax in Houston. Tamika Stubblefield, of Houston, told CBS affiliate KHOU, "In no way, shape or form was I ever advised that they were going to file my taxes for me."

And in Charlotte, N.C., there was a mob of angry Instant Tax customers.

One person said, "They filed her taxes for her two days ago without her permission, without all her W-2 forms.

The Better Business Bureau told CBS News it's received more than 800 complaints about Instant Tax Service nationwide since 2009.

Jody Thomas, vice president of communications for the Greater Maryland BBB, when asked how bad this is for consumers allegedly being victimized, said, "Consumers are alleging that their taxes are being filed without their consent. That's very serious. Consumers are alleging that the amount of fees that they're being charged was not fully disclosed. The fees are double and triple what they were quoted."

CBS News decided to pay a visit to the Instant Tax office in Baltimore that filed Nash's taxes. The employee on site locked the door and wouldn't answer. CBS News watched through the window as she made calls and eventually just turned out the lights and sat in the dark.

Instant Tax Service founder Fez Ogbazion wouldn't agree to an interview. In an email, he told us "We're not a fly-by-night company." "We've prepared 500,000 tax returns in the past three years". As for taxes being filed without permission, he says it's an "honest mistake" and blames a switch in software companies. He says it's "disheartening" to "not be allowed to have a year of adversities and obstacles for the first time ever."

You might ask how all this can go on under the nose of the IRS. They wouldn't talk with CBS News about any of it. Customers who called the IRS say they were told they're out of luck, since their taxes had already been filed - even if it was without their permission.

For Nash the final insult was a call she got from a woman from Instant Tax Service Corporate Claims. In an audio recording, a representative for the company said, "I understand that you are mad, but you can't be mad at anybody but yourself because you signed the papers."

"I didn't pay as much attention as I would have if I weren't in such a hurry for it. So I do take that blame," Nash said. "But at no point should it be acceptable for a business to take advantage. I'm not, I was vulnerable but I'm not stupid."

After CBS News shot this story, the Justice Department filed a complaint to shut down Instant Tax and Ogbazion, alleging "pervasive tax fraud."

Read the DOJ press release

The government says Instant Tax franchises have gotten caught using false and deceptive means to lure in low income customers, and file their taxes without their knowledge or permission.

Justice officials call the fees charged "outrageously high" and estimates fraud in five major cities at $16 million.

Watch Sharyl Attkisson's full report in the video above.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.