Once the IRS began requiring tax return preparers to register and obtain preparer tax identification numbers (PTINs), third parties began requesting their registration information because much of the information was subject to public release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These third parties have in some cases published this information in online directories of preparers. Some third parties also have been contacting preparers, offering products and services including advertising in these listings.
Many preparers were unaware this would happen. Although the IRS does not authorize the third-party directories, it has said from the beginning of the PTIN requirement that it plans eventually to publish its own online directory of preparers. This column can help CPAs know what information is subject to release, why it is being released, and how, if necessary, they can change their publicly releasable contact information to a business, rather than personal, address and telephone number.
For authentication purposes, the IRS requires PTIN registrants to provide the same address on their registration as on their personal tax filings. The registration form also provides spaces where registrants may enter a business address and phone number that are different from their personal ones, although some preparers may have entered their home address and phone number for both, not realizing they would be publicly released.
The AICPA has expressed concerns to the IRS about the Service’s public release of the information. The IRS has changed some registration procedures and options in response. The PTIN registration form now clarifies that what it formerly called a “permanent mailing address” is a registrant’s personal address exempt from public release, and it is now designated as a “personal mailing address.” For the business address field, PTIN holders may now list a post office box. Also, registrants concerned about opening up their email inbox to “spam” by public dissemination of their email address may enter any valid email address as long as they regularly check it for PTIN communications. PTIN holders who want to change or update their contact information at any time for these or other reasons can now do so online or in writing by following instructions and links on a “FOIA Awareness” page at the IRS’s PTIN web portal. PTIN registration and renewal for 2013 became available in October at tinyurl.com/9jres9b.
FOIA applies presumptively to information gathered by federal executive agencies, unless any of nine exemptions apply, one of which is personal privacy. For an example of how FOIA has been applied to enrolled agents to permit release of their professional information but allow the IRS to withhold their private, personal information, including home telephone numbers, see Wade, 771 F. Supp. 2d 20 (D.D.C. 2011).
The IRS makes the database of the publicly releasable PTIN information of more than 700,000 registered preparers available to anyone who requests it and pays a $35 fee. The information subject to release consists of the preparer’s name, business name, business mailing address, business phone number, business website address, email address, and professional credentials.
The AICPA conveyed its concerns to the IRS in numerous discussions during the past year, said Benson Goldstein, senior technical manager–taxation, in the AICPA Tax Section office in Washington. The AICPA also suggested the IRS provide an opportunity for preparers to opt out of the release of some or all of their personal and business information and that the IRS adequately inform PTIN registrants about its disclosure of the information. Although the IRS has not allowed an opt-out, at least some of the third-party online listings allow PTIN holders to opt out of displaying their information on those listings. It is not clear whether or how often private listings will obtain updates from the IRS, so if preparers update their information with the IRS, they may want to also do so on the private listings.
Some private online directories have emailed PTIN holders to offer advertising in those directories. The IRS FOIA Awareness webpage advises that registrants who receive unwanted solicitations as a result of the information release may contact the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection to determine whether the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 applies and, if so, how to report violations.
By Paul Bonner, senior editor, taxation. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4434.