Share story

NEW YORK — With April 15 around the corner, two major credit-card issuers are waiving a pesky processing fee to woo consumers to charge their taxes.

Morgan Stanley’s Discover Financial and MasterCard International, separately, are partnering with H&R Block to waive the 2.49 percent fee that consumers get hit with when they pay federal taxes by credit card.

But their offer just applies to MasterCard debit cards and Discover credit cards — and only when consumers purchase H&R Block software from the companies’ Web sites and pay their taxes there.

The limitations to these promotions mean they may not appeal to a large number of customers. Still, “this is the first year we’ve done a program like this, and we hope it’ll encourage consumers” to use their credit cards for this purpose, said Roger Hochschild, president and chief operating officer of Discover Financial.

American Express is using another tactic. The company notified cardholders in mid-January that they can redeem membership-reward points to offset the third-party processing fee. (Cardholders can trade 200 points for each dollar owed in fees.)

Whether these incentives will be enough to lead a significant number of consumers to take the plunge with credit-card tax payments — and incur high interest rates if balances aren’t paid off — remains to be seen.

Issuers hope, however, that by addressing this fee, they can whittle away some resistance, since the extra expense has been one of the main barriers to widespread consumer adoption of this payment method for taxes, according to Ipsos-Insight, a New York market-research firm.

The fee — typically 2.49 percent of federal taxes, or about $88 on the average balance due of $3,523 — has been in place since the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) first accepted tax payments by credit card in 1999.

Official Payments and Link2Gov, the two companies authorized to accept such payments, charge the fee to authorize and confirm the transaction, then share the funds with issuers such as Discover Financial, Visa USA, MasterCard International and American Express.

Tax payments on credit cards have grown dramatically in recent years, but are still struggling to find their place.

In fiscal 2004, more than 950,000 people whipped out plastic to pay federal taxes — representing a small fraction of the 20.79 million returns that owed a balance — but up 70 percent from the year before, according to the IRS. Credit-card payments have risen almost 18-fold since 1999.

A key reason for the rise is the rewards programs that credit-card issuers have created, allowing consumers to get points that can be redeemed for airline tickets, electronics and a slew of other items.

“There are points junkies out there who are going to do as much as they can to get points,” even pay taxes on plastic, said Aaron McPherson, research director for Financial Insights in Framingham, Mass.

A handful of card issuers make their rewards programs even more tempting during tax time.

For instance, taxes paid with American Express’ Delta Skymiles card through April 15 earn double miles that can be redeemed for airline tickets.

Meanwhile, card association Visa USA said it plans to roll out some perks in coming weeks to encourage tax payments on its cards, but declined to give details.

Before reaching for your plastic, make sure that you have the funds in your bank account to pay off the balance immediately. Otherwise, you could face high interest rates, punishing late fees and over-the-limit charges that likely negate even the most tempting credit-card rewards.

“The obvious point here is to be careful that you’re not getting in over your head by paying for a debt on credit card that you can’t afford,” said Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America in Washington. “This is too important to allow minuscule card rewards to influence your purchasing.”

You can avoid the credit-card processing fee by having taxes deducted electronically from your bank account when you e-file. Debit cards with a credit-card logo, however, are still subject to the fees.

Those who want to charge taxes to their credit card can go to select card issuers’ Web sites to take advantage of promotions, or directly to Official Payments at www.officialpayments.com, or Link2Gov, at www.pay1040.com.

Besides the 2.49 percent charge for federal taxes paid, additional fees may apply to state and local government payments.