Here's something to ponder: All 50 states regulate hair dressers, but only four—California, Oregon, Maryland and New York—specifically regulate tax preparers.
"The consequences of a bad tax return are much more serious than a bad haircut," said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
How much do you know about the person you'll pay to do your tax return? Are you sure, really sure, they're qualified to do the job properly?
Your tax return is probably the single most important financial document in your life. It not only determines the size of your refund or how much you owe the government each year, but it's often used to verify your income for many other important financial transactions, such as student loans, a home mortgage, alimony or child support payments and social welfare programs. So, you want it done right.
While certified public accountants are licensed and enrolled agents are credentialed by the IRS, the vast major of tax preparers in this country do not have to meet even minimum standards for education, training or competency.
A recent consumer law center report, "Riddled Returns," analyzed years of mystery shopper testing by government agencies and consumer groups. The report concluded that the lack of regulation has allowed "widespread abuses" by paid tax preparers, which hurt both their clients and the U.S. Treasury.
(Read more: How to get free help with taxes)
"We found incompetence and outright fraud," Wu said. "And it wasn't just a few bad actors. We saw this over and over again."
David Rothstein, director of research and public affairs at the Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland, would like to see all tax preparers regulated. His organization does mystery shopping at storefront tax preparation services.
"We've seen a lot of people told not to report cash income because it will lessen their refunds," Rothstein said. "Or they're told, 'Come to us and we'll get you a bigger refund than the other guys.' Obviously, if they're doing it correctly, you should get the same refund no matter where you go."
The National Association of Tax Professionals, the largest trade group for tax preparers in the U.S., supports federal regulation.
"Oversight is not a bad thing. Regulation is not a bad thing," said Cindy Hockenberry, who manages the association's Knowledge Center. "There are so many industries that require licensing, why not the tax preparation industry? You're dealing with people's finances, and the penalties for doing things wrong are pretty steep."