End of paper tax return raises fears

Pat Marie, 84, does her own income taxes. She uses a simplified tax return that the Canada Revenue Agency mails to her home each year.

But this month, she started hearing reports that tax returns would not arrive by mail. They had to be downloaded from the agency’s website or picked up at a local post office or Service Canada outlet.

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“I’m disabled and I can’t leave the house,” she said in a panic last week. “And I don’t have a computer.”

Taxpayers can still file on paper, said CRA spokesman Noel Carisse. However, personalized tax packages will no longer be sent by mail — and the simplified return has been eliminated.

Those who are confined to their homes or who don’t have Internet access can call the CRA to ask for the T1 General tax return to be sent by mail.

Pat Marie felt better after I gave her the toll-free number, 1-800-959-8281. Only this week did she receive a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency to tell her about the new status quo.

“I find it very high-handed,” she said. “There was no public input. I think it’s presumptuous of them to stop mailing the returns.

“They say they’re doing it to save money. But doesn’t it cost money to send the extra letter? By the way, the letter I received had no signature at all.”

In 2011, printed packages for about 1.3 million taxpayers went unused, Carisse said. It costs about four times more to process a paper return than an electronic return.

The CRA’s push to electronic tax filing doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some public policy advocates fear that older people will be left behind.

John Stapleton, a retired Ontario civil servant, helps seniors in rural areas file their income taxes. Many of them don’t even have access to a phone with a keypad, let alone a computer.

“The CRA should allow people to opt in or opt out,” he says. “Why not do a one-time mailing, asking if they want a paper tax form?”

Not everyone lives in an urban environment, with access to smartphones and the Internet, Stapleton said. He fears that rural residents will lose out.

The CRA has also eliminated Telefile, which allowed people to file returns by phone. Use of the service had been dropping each year.

Two-thirds of Canadian taxpayers filed electronically, either on their own or with the help of a tax preparer, in 2012. Only one per cent of all tax returns were filed by Telefile, the CRA said in announcing its demise last year.

Filing electronically has many advantages, says Nazima Bhamani, senior brand manager of Intuit Canada, which sells the popular TurboTax program.

“Using software lets Canadians prepare their own taxes on their own terms — no waiting in line, no retail hours. And it’s the absolute fastest way to get your refund.”

If you’re owed a refund, you can get it in as few as eight business days if you use CRA-certified software and send your tax return using the government’s Netfile system.

The CRA will list certified software programs to use with 2012 tax returns before Netfile opens for transmission on Feb. 11. Some products are free.

But do you compromise your security when filing tax returns electronically? Can you trust the federal government to keep your information private?

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada said this month that an external hard drive with details on 583,000 student loan borrowers — including their social insurance numbers — had gone missing from an office in Gatineau, Que. An official with HRSDC minister Diane Finley’s office said the hard drive was an unencrypted device, which was against government protocol.

“There’s a trend to force everyone to go online, but the government hasn’t persuaded us that our information is secure,” says Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy with CARP, a seniors’ lobby group.

The CRA is creating a potential liability, she says. Some people won’t file a 2012 tax return if it doesn’t come in the mail — and if they miss the deadline on April 30, they’ll have taxes owing (plus interest and penalties) to pay.

Also, they’ll miss out on government benefits they may be eligible for — such as the guaranteed income supplement and sales tax credits — that are available only to those who file a tax return each year.

Eng was “outraged” to hear what people had to do to get their 2012 returns. She anticipated complaints from CARP members who had to wait on hold to get through to the CRA.

It took me less than five minutes to reach a representative on Jan. 22 at noon. He said tax returns would be available for pickup at post offices on Feb. 4, while those ordering by phone would get them “probably in mid-February.”

The CRA is providing tip sheets to seniors, telling them what lines to pay special attention to when using the larger T1 General return, Carisse said.

The move to online services “reflects a commitment to ensure service excellence and responsible use of taxpayer dollars,” he added.

Eng replies: “The government is overshooting in an attempt to save money and denying people access to something they need.

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