By Eileen AJ Connelly, AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The competition for your tax business is heating up.
H&R Block and TurboTax will both offer live online professional help in the coming tax season, aiming to draw customers nervous about making mistakes or missing out on refund money.
The two companies are also providing mobile applications that enable users to file their tax returns using smartphones and tablet computers, and reloadable prepaid cards to use to receive refunds.
The similarities reflect a more competitive business for tax customers as the economy continues to struggle. With high unemployment expected to linger, the total number of returns filed isn't expected to grow much in coming years. And with most paper-and-pencil returns now converted to e-filing, the companies will increasingly have to compete for the same taxpayers to expand their customer base.
Younger taxpayers who file simple forms are the most specific target. Both companies hope to establish relationships with these customers that will last as their financial lives get more complex and their tax returns more expensive to prepare.
The two companies combined handled more than 45 million returns last tax season, a third of all returns filed.
TurboTax, the popular software produced by Intuit Inc., has added certified public accountants, enrolled agents and tax attorneys to its ranks who will be available to answer customer questions as they prepare their returns. The expert help, available via text-based online chat or by telephone, will be in addition to the Q&A available with other customers that the company has offered for several years.
The professional assistance is designed to appeal to customers who have hired someone to handle their taxes in the past and are now trying the do-it-yourself software. "This is one of the pain points that people who use a pro tell us they have," said Bob Meighan, a TurboTax vice president.
"Block Live," which was unveiled Thursday at H&R Block Inc.'s investor conference in New York, goes a step further, offering live video chat with its tax professionals, in addition to text chat or telephone consultations.
CEO Bill Cobb said preparing taxes using video chat will duplicate the experience of going to one of the Kansas City, Mo.-based company's 11,000 offices. "It's the natural evolution of our sweet spot, which is assisted tax prep," he said in an interview. "It's the same experience."
The offering is part of the Block's aim to work with taxpayers in whatever medium they prefer.
But Cobb and other Block executives emphasized that the market for assisted tax preparation has not been overtaken by the digital do-it-yourself. They cited Internal Revenue Service statistics to show that the growth in digital preparation, which has overwhelmingly benefitted TurboTax, has largely been at the expense of pen-and-paper preparation. Assisted preparation has remained about 60% of the market for the past decade, while do-it-yourself has stayed at roughly 40%.
The two companies are competing most fiercely for 18- to 24-year-olds, hoping to hold onto these customers as their returns will likewise become more complicated and generate more revenue. Block said taxpayers under age 34 account for 67% of the returns the company handles, compared with 55% of the returns filed to the IRS.
New mobile applications from both companies are aimed squarely at this market.TurboTax offered its "SnapTax" app for smartphones last year, and added a tablet version for the coming season. Block is also debuting both a smartphone and tablet version of its software.
With both companies' apps, users can take pictures of W-2 forms and other documents, and the programs will extract the data and fill in tax forms.
Both companies also are providing reloadable prepaid cards for customers to use to receive their refunds. Block this year will not charge customers who use its Emerald Card an extra fee for delaying payment of their return preparation costs until their refund arrives.
Block has 2.3 million Emerald Cards in circulation now, and aims to add 1 million more in the coming tax season. Cobb aims to push more customers to use the cards throughout the year as a way to drive growth in Block's financial services business. Block has a bank, which means it collects the fees merchants pay on purchases taxpayers make with the prepaid cards.
The prepaid market is expected to continue to grow dramatically as more customers leave banks to avoid expanding fees. Last year, consumers loaded $41 billion on prepaid cards, up from $29 billion in 2009 and $19 billion in 2008, according to consultant Mercator Advisory Group.
TurboTax also is offering a prepaid card, issued by Wilmington, Del.-based Bancorp Bank, and suspending the fee for delaying tax prep payments.