The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is suing Intuit Inc., the maker of the popular TurboTax tax filing software, by issuing an administrative complaint against the company for deceiving consumers with bogus advertisements pitching “free” tax filing that millions of consumers could not use. In addition, to prevent ongoing harm to consumers rushing to file their taxes, the Commission filed a complaint in the U.S. Northern District of California asking a court to order Intuit to halt its deceptive advertising immediately.
The Commission alleges that the company’s ubiquitous advertisements touting their supposedly “free” products—some of which have consisted almost entirely of the word “free” spoken repeatedly—mislead consumers into believing that they can file their taxes for free with TurboTax. In fact, most tax filers can’t use the company’s “free” service because it is not available to millions of taxpayers, such as those who get a 1099 form for work in the gig economy, or those who earn farm income. In 2020, for example, approximately two-thirds of tax filers could not use TurboTax’s free product.
“TurboTax is bombarding consumers with ads for ‘free’ tax filing services, and then hitting them with charges when it’s time to file,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We are asking a court to immediately halt this bait-and-switch, and to protect taxpayers at the peak of filing season.”
Intuit rejected the FTC complaint and said it had been following IRS guidelines over the Free File program.
“The FTC’s arguments are simply not credible. Far from steering taxpayers away from free tax preparation offerings, our free advertising campaigns have led to more Americans filing their taxes for free than ever before and have been central to raising awareness of free tax prep,” said Kerry McLean, executive vice president and general counsel of Intuit. “Over the past eight years, TurboTax products have helped nearly 100 million Americans file their taxes for free, and our most recent free advertising campaign has only accelerated the use of TurboTax free offerings, driving approximately 60% growth from 11 million free filers in 2018 before the campaign launched to more than 17 million free filers in 2021.”
As detailed in the FTC complaint, Intuit engaged in a years-long marketing campaign centered on the promise of “free” services. These ads have run during major events, including the Super Bowl, and have also aired during this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament:
In spite of this advertising, many consumers who took the time to gather their documents, entrust their personal information to Intuit, and begin the filing process found that they could not file their taxes for free.
For example, in at least one ad a disclaimer appeared on the screen while an announcer said “That’s right, TurboTax Free is free. Free, free free free.”
This year, consumers whose adjusted gross income is $73,000 or less can use products in the IRS Free File Program, which are offered by several different companies, to file their federal tax return and, in some instances, state tax return, entirely for free.
The Commission is asking a federal court to put an immediate halt to Intuit’s false advertising and has also authorized the filing of an administrative complaint alleging that the company’s practices are illegal. Both complaints allege that Intuit’s practices violate the FTC Act.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file both the administrative complaint and federal court complaint seeking preliminary relief was 3-1, with Commissioner Noah J. Phillips dissenting.