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Dark patterns could keep you from getting your stimulus check

The IRS enlisted TurboTax’s help to deliver stimulus checks. It could cost you.

Dark patterns could keep you from getting your stimulus check
[Source Image: Jane_Kelly/iStock]
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Many people started receiving stimulus checks last week, but for lower-income Americans, there’s still some confusion about what they need to do to get their $1,200. And Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, isn’t making it easy to figure out.

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As ProPublica’s Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel reported last week, an estimated 6 million American households have incomes that are low enough they don’t need to file taxes. The IRS doesn’t have up-to-date information for them, so when it comes to dispersing the checks from the CARES Act, these people will be harder to find, and it’s less likely they’ll get the money.

To capture these people, the IRS partnered with Intuit TurboTax to create a “stimulus registration product,” which, in theory, provides the 6 million households with a way to give the IRS their current information and get their checks more quickly. In practice, as ProPublica reported, the site’s design can end up steering people to TurboTax’s paid products.

The design elements are what’s known as dark patterns—components of an interface that nudge users toward an action they didn’t intend, such as making an additional purchase or signing up for an unwanted service. In this particular case, there are more buttons that guide the user to TurboTax’s tax prep service than to the stimulus check registration service, clearly prioritizing one action over the other.

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TurboTax disagrees with that framing. “There is no fee to use any of the three stimulus registration tools, there is no upselling in the stimulus registration experience, and Intuit will not use an individual’s data for future marketing,” Rick Heineman, vice president of corporate communication at Intuit, said in a statement to Fast Company. 

[Screenshot: Turbotax]
People making less than $69,000 a year don’t have to pay to file taxes, but the IRS’s Free File program is notoriously difficult to find and also sometimes masked by TurboTax’s paid products, which ProPublica also reported on extensively last year. “Any assertion that Intuit does not support free tax preparation is wholly false and ignores facts,” Heineman told Fast Company.

Further adding to the current confusion, a week after the TurboTax site launched, a separate IRS.gov site went live, which gave people another way to register for a stimulus check if they didn’t need to pay taxes. Intuit also created this site, but the two look notably different. “The TurboTax version created by Intuit offers a slick design and user-friendly Q&A to enter personal data, along with multiple digital off-ramps to paid TurboTax products,” ProPublica writes. “The IRS.gov version, also created by Intuit, is a clunky PDF-style form filled with jargon and small type.”

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[Screenshot: Turbotax]
The best way to combat dark patterns in the case of stimulus checks is to be informed about eligibility requirements. If you filed taxes in 2018 or 2019 and were under the income threshold, you should receive a check automatically. If you didn’t file taxes but received Social Security benefits, you should receive a check, but it might take a bit longer for the IRS to track you down (ProPublica recommends filing your taxes using the Free File system to ensure the check comes more quickly). If you didn’t make enough to file taxes, know that the process of requesting your check is completely free. If you end up on a site trying to make you pay, don’t.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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