During my extended apprenticeship as a young knucklehead, I once took my cranky car -- which had perennial issues with starting when the temperature fell below 45 -- to a mechanic who assured me that any and all problems would disappear.

And for emphasis, he snapped his thick, greasy fingers to illustrate just how fast my starter problems would be in my rearview mirror.

Well, after several follow-up visits and a dozen more failed starts, the only thing that disappeared more quickly than a snap of his fingers was my money.

Imagine my great surprise when a month later I learned that said mechanic, along with the entire service garage, had been charged with price gouging and consumer fraud.

I recount this story only because the claims of my former mechanic echoed those of David Cohen, a New York-area CPA whose business card claimed that he could make tax problems disappear - "like magic."

But apparently the only things Cohen successfully made disappear were the legal amount of tax returns and himself.

At press time, Cohen was on the lam and prominently displayed on the wanted list of the Manhattan DA's office for allegedly running what was colloquially termed a "tax preparation mill" out of his office and avoiding more than $7.5 million in taxes owed by his clients.

In the words of Manhattan DA Robert Morganthau, Cohen's fraud was "one of the biggest we've ever seen."

Morganthau's office charged that Cohen and his partner, Jeffrey Rosner, allegedly churned out tax returns so "cooked" it's a wonder they didn't set off smoke alarms.

According to the charges, a client reporting $50,000 in income would report only $10,000. For someone earning $250,000, only $50,000 would be reported. In addition, hundreds of returns would claim identical deductions.

Cohen, a former accounting professor who taught part-time at Rutgers Business School and at Baruch College, has been on investigators' watch list for roughly three years.

And I'm sure it comes as a surprise to exactly no one that both Cohen and Rosner cheated on their own taxes. In fact, Rosner -- currently free on a $350,000 bond -- failed to report any of the $1.2 million he made in 2003.

But here's the difference.

Unlike an 18-year-old numbskull who was naively duped, Cohen's over 600 tax clients included doctors and business people -- who obviously were well aware of what numerical gymnastics their preparer was performing.

Thirty years ago I learned an expensive lesson about things promising to disappear like magic.

For those of us who prepare their 1040s with relative honesty, I'm sure Cohen's and Rosner's clients will be mandated to a far more expensive lesson than the price of an ignition starter in the form of back taxes and penalties.

While, here's hoping Cohen and Rosner will learn to perfect their preparation techniques as multi-year guests of the state.

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