And you thought your W-2 was evidence of highway robbery. At least the taxman operates legally. The Internal Revenue Service just rolled out its list of 12 top tax scams, which, coincidentally, deflects some of the consumer ire about parting with huge chunks of our paychecks this time of year.
As always, the most popular ploys falsely promise to reduce or altogether eliminate your tax bill. This year, a few new crafty schemes have made the most wanted list. "Zero wages" and the mysterious "Form 843 tax abatement" both encourage filers to falsify information on legitimate IRS forms in the hopes that a blizzard of paperwork will distract the Feds.
If headaches, fines, prison, and steep penalties are your idea of fun, then go ahead and sign on the shady dotted line. If not, heed the IRS warnings and avoid this year's 12 top offenses:
1. Zero Wages: A taxpayer submits "corrected" forms showing little or no wages for the year and blames the reporting company for refusing to issue a corrected Form W-2.
2. Form 843 Tax Abatement: The filer submits a form that requests abatement for previously assessed taxes by citing (falsely) an Internal Revenue Code program called Substitute for Return Program.
3. Phishing: Scammers pose as IRS agents or other legitimate financial institutions in order to get taxpayers to reveal personal and financial information. More consumers fall for this around this time of year, because the emails claim to notify filers of an audit or an outstanding refund. FYI: The IRS doesn't email. Anyone. (Here are some tips on avoiding the stink that phishers leave behind.)
4. Zero Return: Consumers are told to enter all zeros on their federal income tax filing, or to do it on an amended return, in the hopes that the IRS will ignore the original return where income was accurately reported.
5. Trust Misuse: Move your money into a trust and your taxes will be lower -- or so say the scamsters who promote this method. The problem is that sometimes this is a legitimate financial planning strategy. The IRS encourages taxpayers to seek the advice of a trusted money pro (emphasis on "trusted") before taking the bait.
6. Frivolous Arguments: Someone clearly didn't get a passing grade in American History. Claiming all sorts of shortcomings with the 16th Amendment (the congressional power to lay and collect income taxes), the Fifth Amendment (right against self-incrimination), and the Fourth Amendment (the right to privacy), and hiding behind false arguments, will land you in court.
7. Return Preparer Fraud: An unscrupulous preparer may have done you wrong (charging inflated fees, skimming from client refunds), but unfortunately, you the taxpayer are on the hook for any wrongdoing done in your name. Here's some advice on finding the right tax preparer for you.
8. Credit Counseling Agencies: The IRS is cracking down on debt counseling organizations who tout their tax-exempt status and make false promises of fixing credit ratings. If you need some help getting out from under your debt (or finding a helping hand with other money concerns), here's our advice.
9. Abuse of Charitable Organizations and Deductions: Improperly shielding income and assets from taxation is a big no-no. Examples of this, according to the IRS, include moving assets to a tax-exempt supporting organization or donor-advised fund while still maintaining control over the money.
10. Offshore Transactions: It sounds so sexy -- the Bahamian-Suisse Banc Account. But illegally hiding income in offshore banks or brokerages -- or couching such transactions with the use of wire transfers, foreign trusts, employee leasing schemes, or private annuities -- is against the law.
11. Employment Tax Evasion: Scamsters who tell employers not to withhold federal income tax, or other employment taxes from wages, are incorrectly interpreting Section 861, says the IRS. It's not just the employer who gets in trouble. Employees are still required to pay their personal taxes if they've had nothing withheld from their wages. Ouch.
12. "No Gain" Deduction: Income? What income? Using Schedule A's "Other Miscellaneous Deductions," filers deduct the entire amount of their adjusted gross income (AGI) with an attached statement that claims "No Gain Realized." To which the IRS responds: "No Can Do."
What should you do if you fall prey to any of these scams? Yup, more paperwork. If you suspect tax fraud, use IRS Form 3949-A, Information Referral. You can download it at IRS.gov or by calling (800) 829-3676.
The surest way to legally avoid Uncle Sam's wrath is, well, death. Even then, the act of dying triggers a whole new set of tax issues for those you left behind.
More taxing issues: