Fast Company likes to cover businesses that do well by doing good. But sometimes the opposite is equally true. Earlier this year, the nation's leading tax-preparing company paid $4.85 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over its "refund anticipation loans"—high interest, high-fee cash advances of consumer's own money that California's attorney general, along with many others, said were deceptively marketed. H&R Block is still selling these loans, only with the effective APR lowered to 36% from the insane heights (500%?!) previously seen. The list of consumer complaints goes on and on—an overpriced IRA product, hidden fees and charges, employee identity theft. And to top it all off, just yesterday, they were ordered to pay $2 million to a software contractor in a fraud and contract fight.
Yet despite all these black eyes, and despite the strong emergence of do-it-yourself online alternatives like TurboTax, H&R Block is going gangbusters in the final sprint of tax season. They're doing twice as well as the Dow Jones over the past year, and their revenues are up this tax season as individuals and businesses cope with a tsunami of tax complications: foreclosures, unemployment claims, and billions of brand-new tax credits and incentives found in Obama's stimulus package. Tax preparers are leasing newly vacant storefronts to cope with the growth.
This is a company that demands you turn over all your financial and personal information for the year. it's hard to think of a business model that depends more on trust. So how long can H&R Block go on brushing off the bad press?
Well, everyone has to do their taxes. And most people would rather not think about them. H&R Block is fast, they have a ubiquitous, easy-to-recognize brand, and best of all, they have the ability to offer money to everyone who comes in the door. Sure, it's the customer's own money, but that doesn't matter. As long as there's a group of Americans—possibly less educated or less digitally savvy—who prefer not to spend time thinking about managing their money, retail tax preparers will probably continue to thrive.
I'll be talking about H&R Block and tax time on WNYC's Financial 411 Podcast today, you can listen here.