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Alexandra DeFelice
Alexandra DeFelice
 

Don’t Skimp on Scanners

Another tax season is coming and with it comes renewed vows of “going paperless” — or at least going in that direction.

October 5, 2009
by Alexandra DeFelice

The CPAs who have gone completely paperless — scanning in the beginning of the process, using triple monitors so the third screen replaces the physical source docs and essentially never touching a piece of paper — say they’d never go back.

But most of them admit getting there wasn’t easy, and one of the most common mistakes they confess is that they invested in cheap scanners and that it made tax season “miserable.”

Scanning is an essential part of the paperless process. Even in Phase 1 of the multi-step process of getting to that paperless utopia, scanning takes center stage. The only difference is that the accountants scan the already-prepared returns for electronic storage after the fact instead of at the beginning of process, like they do in more advanced stages.

The problem with “cheap” scanners is you get what you pay for. A survey of 450 firms about their experiences during the 2008 tax season by tax software automation vendor Copanion pointed to various challenges accountants faced including slow scanning speeds, trouble scanning documents of different sizes and problems identifying and organizing documents after they were scanned, to name a few.

And if they don’t trust the scanners to do the job, they have to spend time making sure all of the documents are there, in the right order and readable — not a very productive use of time unless firms hire a few interns to do that job.

When making purchasing decisions, pay attention to things like speed (30 pages to 40 pages per-minute minimum is recommended), whether it can scan both sides of a page simultaneously (duplex) and the ability to feed pages of multiple sizes and thicknesses simultaneously (think W-2s and receipts). Color scanning is not as important with tax documents and it saves ink and time when scanning in black and white, so that should not be a priority.

Reliable scanners don’t have to break the bank, though some of the heavy duty ones can cost up to $4,000. One option for smaller organizations without loads of documents that don’t want to spend a lot of money is Fujitsu’s ScanSnap S1500. While it scans about 20 pages per minute, it automatically rotates information based on content (so the pages are in the correct direction), allows for multiple size documents to be fed simultaneously and increases the resolution for the smaller pieces of paper so they are more readable. It costs about $495.

When speed is important, that same vendor offers the Fujitsu Fi6140, which handles 60 pages per minute and comes bundled with imaging software. It was listed on various Web sites from $1,500 to $2,000.

Other popular brands include Canon, HP and Xerox.

Xerox’s Web site offers customers the ability to check off features that are important to them, then compares up to 10 of its products.

Just like software, a lot of hardware vendors out there will give “risk-free” trials of their product if prospective customers ask for it. Capitalize on the chance to ask other accountants what they use and whether they like it. Practitioners don’t need scanners that are meant for digital photography. The numbers don’t need to look pretty, they just need to be readable.

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Alexandra DeFelice is a senior editor for the Journal of Accountancy. She can be reached at or 212-596-6122.