Applications get extra scrutiny from an eight-member board if a preparer admits to having been convicted of a crime. Registration is denied if the applicant's offense is related to fraud or embezzlement during tax preparation, Blackstone says. Two applicants have been rejected so far.

A registration must be renewed every two years. To qualify for a renewal, preparers must undergo 16 hours of continuing education, including four hours on Maryland tax issues, Blackstone says.

Consumers will also be able to call the state Board of Individual Tax Preparers at 410-230-6257 to find out the number of complaints lodged against a preparer they plan to hire. And preparers' disciplinary records will be posted online eventually.

Taxpayers can file a complaint against a preparer on the board's website at dllr.state.md.us/license/taxprep/. About 10 complaints have been lodged so far, mostly over missing or misplaced refunds, Blackstone says.

When he gets a complaint, Blackstone says, he contacts the preparer to see if the problem can be fixed. If calls or letters to preparers don't work, Blackstone says, he can send an investigator to their offices.

The one time it came to that, he says, the preparer called to say the problem would be taken care of that day.

Blackstone says the board has the authority to sanction tax preparers by, for example, suspending or revoking their registration and assessing penalties of up to $5,000 for each violation.

"The one thing we can't do: We can't get a person's refund back for them if it's missing," Blackstone says.

The board can refer cases of suspected fraud to Maryland's attorney general for criminal prosecution.

If you are in the market for a Maryland preparer, here are some things to consider:

• Make sure your preparer is registered.

• Avoid tax preparers who promise to get you a bigger refund than others, particularly if they haven't even looked at your documents.

• Don't hire anyone who asks you to sign the return before it's filled out or doesn't show the return to you after it's completed, advises Christine Feldmann, spokeswoman for the comptroller of Maryland.

• Walk away from any preparer who won't give you an address or phone number if you need to contact him later, Feldmann says. Maryland law now requires preparers to provide in writing their names, contact information, education and training to customers before they handle a return.

• Review your return for errors or misstatements before signing it. Make sure your preparer gives you a copy of the filing and returns your documents.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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