By Beth Pinsker
NEW YORK, March 29 (Reuters) - The phone started ringing early on Monday morning at tax preparer Alan Pinck's office in San Jose, California, with panicked callers begging for appointments.
"Two weeks ago, I'd have just gone ahead and scheduled it, but now it's not something I will put on the calendar," Pinck said.
First, the good news: This year, the federal filing deadline is not until April 18 (April 19 for Maine and Massachusetts residents).
Another bit of happy information is that seasoned veterans like Pinck will not coldly turn you away if you come clamoring for help when they are all booked up, but you may not get immediate service.
So if you are among the 35 percent of taxpayers who do not file until the final two weeks or blow the deadline altogether, here is what you need to know about getting some last-minute professional help:
1. Extensions are not a bad thing
If every tax preparer you call is already too busy to see you in person, stay calm. Pinck's way of dealing with a straggler is to take down some basic information and file an extension.
The key is that if you owe money, you have to pay it by the deadline, usually by sending a check along with the extension request.
The drawback is that if you are one of the 75 percent of taxpayers entitled to a refund, you will not get it until after you file your full return, according to Intuit Inc's TurboTax tax preparation software division.
Another ding: The later you call, the more it will cost you. Many preparers add surcharges for last-minute appointments and additional fees for extensions, which vary depending on the complexity of the return.
2. Ask around
Last-minute or not, most people find a new tax preparer by word of mouth.
Laurie Ziegler, a tax preparer with Sass Accounting in Saukville, Wisconsin, gets a lot of referrals through Facebook from people who post there asking their friends for recommendations.
You can also find an expert by reading up on your specialized needs in newsletters and journals. Shomari Hearn, a vice president with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has had many small business owners discover him that way.
And you can solicit for quotes for professional services on a web service like Thumbtack (http:/thumbtack.com/). Aaron Blau's tax advisory firm in Tempe, Arizona, has attracted new clients through Thumbtack in the past several years, although he has been too busy this year to participate.
3. EAs matter
Tax preparers do not need to have a license in order to prepare returns, which sometimes makes it hard to find someone reputable.
One way to judge is to look for what letters come after the person's name. Ziegler, Blau, Pinck and Hearn are all EAs - "enrolled agents." This special designation from the U.S. government means they have passed a rigorous test and completed a required amount of continuing education each year.
"A certified financial planner (CFP) doesn't have any specialty in tax," said Ziegler, who is also on the board of the National Association of Enrolled Agents. "A certified public accountant (CPA) or attorney may specialize in tax, but it's only one part of the credential."
An enrolled agent does not have to be in your local area to take you as a client, so you can search nationwide (http:\eatax.org) for anyone with last-minute availability.
Preparers who have put out a shingle without any specialized degree may still be experienced professionals, Blau said, but if something goes wrong and you are audited, they cannot represent you.
Pinck gets many new clients this way. They come for audit representation and stay for tax preparation the next year.
4. Look for red flags
Alarm bells should go off if your tax preparer does not sign your return as a paid preparer.
Blau also said you should be wary if the preparer uses consumer software rather than a professional-grade service.
And most of all, beware if the preparer offers to pay the refund to you immediately and have the official government funds deposited into a third-party account.
"They will give you the right amount," Blau said, "and then they will modify the return and pocket the difference." (Editing by Lauren Young and Lisa Von Ahn)