Electronic signatures and text messaging are the highlights for Petz Enterprise's desktop product, CrossLink. One of the biggest fears preparers have is that of legitimacy if no one signs a tax return, especially now that The Small Business Tax Act has been amended to increase penalties for preparers who conduct "willful or reckless conduct," says Charles Petz, vice president of development.
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"They want the one who prepared it to be on the hook," Petz says.
CrossLink creates a record in the software that captures the preparer's signature the moment he or she logs into the system to begin the tax return and affixes the signature to whatever that person prepares.
Signature pads certified for use with CrossLink 1040 include the Topaz SigLite 1x5 T-S460, Topaz SigLite SL 1x5 T-S461, and the Topaz SigLite LCD 1x5 T-L460. They range in price from roughly $90 to $250, which Petz believes preparers will be willing to pay.
Capturing taxpayers' signature is equally as important to some customers.
Carolyn Clark's Irving, Texas-based Action Services handles 20,000 returns. So not only does storing customers' electronic signatures in her computer help her keep on top of e-filling and eliminate the need to print out forms for all of them to physically sign, it saves tons of filing space in her office.
Beyond meeting the needs for self-protection and government disclosure, electronic signature pad support helps customers-mostly high-volume retail tax businesses like Clark's-move toward a paperless office, Petz notes.
Multi-office service bureaus that use V-Tax, Petz's Web-based professional product, will have to wait another year for signature pad support because it is built on different technology, Petz says, adding that although V-Tax serves fewer customers he anticipates the number of customers to grow by 20 percent this year, compared to 5 percent for CrossLink, primarily because people don't like to switch desktop products.
A full-fledged document management system and Web-based portals to exchange information with clients is not in the works for either product at this time.
In August, Petz launched TextLink, a text messaging service integrated into CrossLink. It uses Short Messaging Service to deliver text messages to the taxpayer's cell phone directly from the software instead of from another phone.
For example, a preparer can alert people that their checks are ready for pickup.
This prospect interests people like Clark, who would typically have to play phone tag with her customers.
"Now we can text message them that their checks are ready and have it be over with," she says.
Sometimes customers don't have email access at work, but most have cell phones, Petz argues, noting that even those who may not send texts themselves or have a texting plan are usually willing to pay the 10 cents or so for one message alerting them they can pick up their money.
Rathen Mason, a Petz customer since the early '80s, spent last season texting people from her own cell phone.
"If my customers have cell phones, I tell them as soon as their work is complete, I will text them, but I asked them not to text me back because that would be the same thing as calling," says Mason, of Mason Mason & Associates, which has three offices in Mississippi.
Her customers expressed appreciation for the service, but Mason still had to type in each number herself and write the message.
"This will save me 80 percent more time," Mason says. "I've looked at other (less costly) software. But they're up on technology."
HQ: Tracy, Calif.
Phone: (800) 276-1766
Price: $895 (CrossLink); $2,500 (V-Tax)
Renewal: $895 (CrossLink); $2,500 (V-Tax)
Pay-per-return: Available for V-Tax online
Online preparation: Available for V-Tax only
Multi-state processing: Up to five states for e-file, nine attached to return (both for CrossLink only)
Data entry: Year-to-year database transfers, auto-calculations
Support methods: Phone, email
Support hours: 24-7
Document management/storage: N/A
Online organizer: V-Tax only
Internet portals: N/A
Internet capabilities: TextLink text messaging from CrossLink
Bank products: RAL, RT, ERC
New for next year: TextLink and Electronic Signature Pad support (CrossLink); improved navigation and enhanced forms (V-Tax)