Before you hire a tax preparer, do your homework.

  • First, check to see that the preparer has the Tax Identification Number required by the IRS. Check the preparer's history with the Better Business Bureau, and call the IRS, state board of accountancy or state bar to see if the preparer is properly licensed.

  • Once you choose a preparer, still be cautious:

  • Check your tax return thoroughly to make sure it is accurate.

  • Sign your tax return, and make sure your preparer signs it and includes the identification number. Never sign a blank or incomplete form.

  • Keep a copy of your tax return.

  • Don't use preparers who charge a percentage of your refund.

  • Stay away from preparers who advertise that they can get you bigger refunds than their competitors.

  • Make sure your bank account number -- not the preparer's -- is on the return to receive the entire refund.

  • Ask for an e-file.

  • Report fraudulent tax preparers at www.irs.gov or call 800-829-3676

    Here are resources for finding a licensed and registered tax return preparer.

    California Board of Accountancy: dca.ca.gov/cba

    California Society of Certified Public Accountants: calcpa.org


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    State Bar of California: calbar.ca.gov

    California Society of Enrolled Agents: csea.org

    California Tax Education Council: ctec.org

    IRS: irs.gov

    Plenty of free tax return assistance is available, including at the Santa Clara University Low-Income Tax Clinic, which is open Wednesday evenings at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, at 1030 The Alameda, San Jose. Call 408-288-7030.

    The IRS-funded Volunteer Income Tax Assistance clinics offer free tax preparation across the Bay Area. Find a site at irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/

    Sources: National Taxpayer Advocate Service, IRS, California Franchise Tax Board, California Tax Education Council and the SCU Low-Income Tax Clinic

    Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.