September 18, 2014

Statistically, your chances of being charged with criminal tax fraud or evasion by the IRS are minimal. The IRS initiates criminal investigations against fewer than 2 percent of all American taxpayers. Of that number, only about 20 percent face criminal tax charges or fines.

Related Article: The IRS Criminal Investigation Process

Unofficially, the minimum amount of unpaid taxes required to trigger an IRS criminal investigation is $70,000. And since the majority of Americans don’t even earn that much money, it’s easy to see why ordinary taxpayers need never worry about facing tax evasion or fraud charges.

While honest mistakes or even negligence generally won’t trigger a tax investigation, perpetrating fraud very well might. IRS agents are trained to recognize signs of criminal tax fraud and evasion. Exhibiting behaviors the IRS calls “affirmative acts” could eventually result in that fateful knock on the door from the IRS.

Negligence versus Tax Fraud

Back in the day, it seemed like the IRS was lying in wait, prepared to strike unsuspecting taxpayers at the slightest sign of tax error. These days the IRS is more tolerant of mistakes made by honest taxpayers.

When the circumstances are not clear cut, the IRS frequently errs on the side of giving the taxpayer the benefit of the doubt. Miscalculating the amount of your Earned Income Tax Credit is a mistake that could cost you a significant sum of money, but it isn’t usually considered to be tax fraud. Artificially concealing $800,000 of income by keeping two sets of books? Tax fraud. (Nolo)

Evidence of Fraud

Four so-called elements of fraud are recognized by the IRS: deception, misrepresenting material facts, submitting false or deliberately altered documents and failing to submit critical documents, such as tax returns. Several elements of fraud must occur together to trigger IRS fraud charges. But a single element that occurs in an especially blatant fashion may generate IRS tax fraud charges.

For instance, failure to submit a tax return for a single year is not usually considered to be an element of tax fraud. On the other hand, unless your income is extremely low, failing to file any tax returns ever could very well cause the IRS to initiate a criminal investigation against you.

Badges of Fraud

The list below, taken from the IRS.gov website, represents several “badges of fraud” the IRS looks for when determining whether to file criminal charges.

Badges of fraud fall into four general categories: improper reporting of income, unjustified deductions or tax credits, inadequate record keeping and outright illegal behavior. As with elements of fraud, IRS agents are inclined to give taxpayers the benefit of the doubt. They’ll impose penalties for taxpayers in arrears rather than bringing criminal charges against them.

  • Understatement or omission of substantial sums of money
  • Fictitious deductions
  • Maintaining “shadow” sets of accounting records
  • Deliberate destruction of records
  • Evidence of consistent underreporting of income
  • Obviously nonsensical explanations for behavior
  • Refusing to cooperate with an auditor or examiner·
  • Deliberately concealing assets, as in overseas tax shelters
  • Illegal activities
  • Dealing exclusively in cash
  • Maintaining obviously inadequate records
  • Indicators of Fraud

The IRS categorizes indicators of fraud into six broad categories: income, expenses and deductions, books and records, income allocation, methods of concealment and taxpayer conduct.

Just as with elements of fraud and badges of fraud, the difference between negligence and criminal conduct is often a matter of extent. Indicators of fraud usually include an element of deliberate conduct as well. An extensive list of actions that constitute indicators of fraud are available on the IRS website, but the examples below should provide a general idea of how the IRS views indicators of fraud.

Example #1:

Forgetting to include income from a W-2 form is not considered an indicator of income fraud. Insisting on being paid cash wages for a job and refusing to list any income from that job on your federal income tax return would be considered to be an indicator of income fraud.

Example #2:

Miscalculating the percentage of business versus personal use for your computer is not considered an indicator of fraud for expenses and deductions. Attempting to deduct the entire cost of your vacation to the Bahamas because you answered a single work-related email from your hotel room WOULD be.

Don’t Be Evasive

In general, if you suspect that a particular type of conduct is disallowed by the IRS, you shouldn’t do it. If you go ahead and do it anyway, you run the risk of being cited for tax evasion or tax fraud. And if you do receive that dreaded knock on the door from the IRS, you should not be surprised.

Additional Tax Tips:

The IRS Criminal Investigation Process
What to do during an IRS Audit
How to survive an IRS tax audit