March 3, 2014



Would you cheat on your taxes? If you said “no,” count yourself in the majority.

According to the 2012 Taxpayer Attitude Survey, a hefty 87 percent of 1,500 respondents found that deliberately using fraudulent means to avoid paying income taxes was unacceptable. Only 11 percent agreed with the statement that cheating “a little here and there or as much as possible” was OK.

Think that if you look honest, you can get away with fudging your taxes? Think again.

However, actual revenues collected by the Internal Revenue Service tell a somewhat different story. The so-called “tax gap” is defined as the difference between the total income tax liability and the amount of income tax payments that are made voluntarily and on a timely basis.This tax gap totaled $450 billion in 2008, but shrank to $385 billion after late payments were posted.

Taxpayers across the country under-reported their income by an estimated $376 billion the same year, while underpayments amounted to $46 billion, and $28 billion was owed by non filers – people who did not complete tax returns at all. All told, the compliance rate in 2008 on the estimated $2.66 trillion tax obligation was about 83 percent.

Under-reported Income

Most taxpayers are diligent about paying taxes on income reported on W-2 forms. After all, the IRS receives the same information, so skipping out on paying what is owed is fairly difficult. Self-employed workers who receive 1099 forms have somewhat more latitude about how much total income they report due to legitimate business-related expenses. Nonetheless, earnings listed on 1099 forms are also reported to the IRS; therefore most self-employed workers at least acknowledge those earnings.

On the other hand, a significant amount of cash income is never reported to the IRS. If you were paid $100 to fix someone’s computer, you will probably get by with not reporting that income. However, if you collect a cool $5,000 on the side through your online storefront, you shouldn’t expect to fly under the IRS radar if you don’t acknowledge the sum on the following year’s tax return.

Questionable Deductions

There is nothing wrong with claiming every penny to which you are entitled through legitimate tax credits and deductions. If you are self-employed and you have established an authentic home office, you should absolutely claim the home office deduction. If you are a wage earner whose boss expects you to call on out-of-town clients on your own dime, go ahead and claim the deduction for work-related travel. As long as you can document your claim, you’re fine – even if you are audited by the IRS.

On the other hand, taking a vacation in Hawaii and claiming a deduction because you attended a Donald Trump seminar during the trip likely won’t pass muster with the IRS. Likewise, the cost of your daily commute from your home to your cubicle is also unlikely to be deductible. If you have doubts about whether a deduction or credit is legitimate, it’s best to check with a tax attorney or with a certified public accountant to be sure.

Discredited Tax Protests

A persistent movement exists among a small group of individuals who claim that federal income taxes are unconstitutional because the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution (which was ratified in 1913) was improperly ratified. These tax protesters insist that they are exempt from paying income taxes as a result. The IRS has repeatedly dismissed such claims, frequently charging delinquent taxpayers with filing frivolous returns.

One of the more prominent figures snagged for adhering to discredited tax protester claims is actor Wesley Snipes. Snipes was released from federal prison in 2013 after serving nearly three years for misdemeanor charges related to willfully failing to file tax returns. Snipes claimed that he was misled into believing that his actions were legal by his co-defendants, tax-protesters Eddie Kahn and Douglas Rosile. Federal prosecutors had also pursued felony charges against the three for tax fraud and conspiracy, alleging that Snipes had shipped more than $15 million overseas in an illegal bid to avoid paying taxes. Kahn and Rosile were convicted of those charges, but Snipes was acquitted.

Straight-Up Scams

While the actions described above can be described as questionable claims and gray-area tax-related behavior by otherwise honest citizens, straight up tax evasion scams are also prevalent. Such tactics as strictly paying employees in cash and setting up questionable business and family trusts are among the more common tax evasion schemes attempted by both individuals and companies attempting to skirt paying income taxes.

While a case can sometimes be made for leniency concerning unwitting tax evasion, the IRS frequently takes a dim view of defendants that in its view have deliberately attempted to commit fraud. Outright scams, once uncovered by the IRS, are likely to result in criminal tax evasion charges and long prison sentences upon conviction. This is in contrast to civil tax evasion, which can carry hefty fines but no jail time.

Just (Don’t) Do It

Even if you get away with underpaying your taxes (or failing to file returns at all) for a short period, the odds are good that you will be caught eventually. The statute of limitations for federal tax audits is doubled from three to six years if you fail to report at least 25 percent of your income, or if you have income on undisclosed foreign assets that totals $5,000 or more. There is no statute of limitations on IRS audits for filing fraudulent returns or unlawfully failing to file tax returns, which means that you could be looking over your shoulder for years – or even the rest of your life.