Common Tax Schemes

There are numerous schemes by which taxpayers avoid payment of taxes.  Several categories of tax schemes have been identified by the IRS, certain of which are identified below:

 

The IRS’s Dirty Dozen for 20011

Common Abusive Domestic Trust Schemes

Common Foreign Schemes

Emerging Foreign Schemes

 


The IRS’s Dirty Dozen Tax Scams for 2011

 

Each year, the IRS identifies common tax scams it refers to as the Dirty Dozen.  The following schemes were highlighted by the IRS in 2011:

Hiding Income Offshore

The IRS aggressively pursues taxpayers involved in abusive offshore transactions as well as the promoters, professionals and others who facilitate or enable these schemes. Taxpayers have tried to avoid or evade U.S. income tax by hiding income in offshore banks, brokerage accounts or through the use of nominee entities. Taxpayers also evade taxes by using offshore debit cards, credit cards, wire transfers, foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, private annuities or insurance plans.

In early February, the IRS announced a special voluntary disclosure initiative designed to bring offshore money back into the U.S. tax system and help people with undisclosed income from hidden offshore accounts get current with their taxes. The new voluntary disclosure initiative will be available through Aug. 31, 2011. The IRS decision to open a second special disclosure initiative follows continuing interest from taxpayers with foreign accounts. In response to numerous requests, information about this initiative is available on IRS.gov in eight different languages, including: Chinese, Farsi, German, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Identity Theft and Phishing

Identity theft occurs when someone uses an unsuspecting individual’s name, Social Security number, credit card number or other personal information without permission to commit fraud or other crimes. For example, a criminal can use someone else's information to run up bills on that person's credit card, empty that person’s bank account or take out a loan in that person’s name. And when it comes to taxes, a criminal with someone else’s personal information can file a fraudulent tax return and collect a refund.

Phishing is one tactic used by scam artists to trick unsuspecting victims into revealing personal or financial information online. Phishing involves the use of phony e-mail or websites -- even social media. A scammer may pose as an institution such as the IRS. IRS impersonation schemes flourish during tax season. Spyware, which can be loaded onto an unsuspecting taxpayer’s computer by opening an e-mail attachment or clicking on a link, is another tool identity thieves use to steal personal information.

Identity theft is a major problem that affects many people each year. That's why it's important that taxpayers protect their personal information. Anyone who believes his or her personal information has been stolen and used for tax purposes should immediately contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490. A suspicious e-mail or an “IRS” Web address that does not begin with http://www.irs.gov should be forwarded to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

Return Preparer Fraud

While most return preparers are professionals who provide honest and excellent service to their clients, some make basic errors or engage in fraud and other illegal activities.

Dishonest return preparers can cause big trouble for taxpayers who fall victim to their ploys. These fraudsters derive benefit by skimming a portion of their clients’ refunds, charging inflated fees for return preparation services and attracting new clients by making false promises. Taxpayers should choose carefully when hiring a tax preparer. Federal courts have issued hundreds of injunctions ordering individuals to cease preparing returns, and the Department of Justice has pending complaints against dozens of others.

To increase confidence in the tax system and improve compliance with the tax law, the IRS is implementing a number of requirements for paid tax preparers, including registration with the IRS and a preparer tax identification number (PTIN), as well as competency tests and ongoing continuing professional education.

The new regulations require paid tax preparers (including attorneys, CPAs, and enrolled agents) to apply for a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) before preparing any federal tax returns in 2011.

Higher standards for the tax preparer community will result in greater compliance with tax laws, increase confidence in the tax system and ultimately lead to a better experience for taxpayers.

Filing False or Misleading Forms

IRS personnel are seeing various instances in which scam artists file false or misleading returns to claim refunds to which they are not entitled. In one variation of this scheme, a taxpayer seeks a refund by fabricating an information return and falsely claiming the corresponding amount as withholding. Phony information returns, such as a Form 1099 Original Issue Discount (OID), which claims false withholding credits, are usually used to legitimize erroneous refund claims. One version of the scheme is based on the bogus theory that the federal government maintains secret accounts for its citizens and that taxpayers can gain access to funds in those accounts by issuing 1099-OID forms to their creditors, including the IRS.

The IRS continues to see instances in which people file false or fraudulent tax returns to try to obtain improper tax refunds. The IRS takes refund fraud seriously, has programs to aggressively combat it and stops the vast majority of incorrect refunds.

Because scammers often use information from family or friends in filing false or fraudulent returns, beware of requests for such data. Don’t fall prey to people who encourage you to claim deductions or credits you are not entitled to or willingly allow others to use your information to file false returns. If you are a party to such schemes, you could be liable for financial penalties or even face criminal prosecution.

Frivolous Arguments

Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage people to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying the taxes they owe. The IRS has a list of frivolous legal positions that taxpayers should avoid. These arguments are false and have been thrown out of court. While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law or IRS guidance.

Nontaxable Social Security Benefits with Exaggerated Withholding Credit

The IRS has identified returns where taxpayers report nontaxable Social Security Benefits with excessive withholding. This tactic results in no income reported to the IRS on the tax return. Often both the withholding amount and the reported income are incorrect. Taxpayers should avoid making these mistakes. Filings of this type of return may result in a $5,000 penalty.

Abuse of Charitable Organizations and Deductions

The IRS continues to observe the misuse of tax-exempt organizations. Abuse includes arrangements to improperly shield income or assets from taxation and attempts by donors to maintain control over donated assets or income from donated property. The IRS also continues to investigate various schemes involving the donation of non-cash assets including situations where several organizations claim the full value for both the receipt and distribution of the same non-cash contribution. Often these donations are highly overvalued or the organization receiving the donation promises that the donor can repurchase the items later at a price set by the donor. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 imposed increased penalties for inaccurate appraisals and set new definitions of qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers for taxpayers claiming charitable contributions.

Abusive Retirement Plans

The IRS continues to find abuses in retirement plan arrangements, including Roth Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). The IRS is looking for transactions that taxpayers use to avoid the limits on contributions to IRAs, as well as transactions that are not properly reported as early distributions. Taxpayers should be wary of advisers who encourage them to shift appreciated assets at less than fair market value into IRAs or companies owned by their IRAs to circumvent annual contribution limits. Other variations have included the use of limited liability companies to engage in activity that is considered prohibited.

Disguised Corporate Ownership

Corporations and other entities are formed and operated in certain states for the purpose of disguising the ownership of the business or financial activity by means such as improperly using a third party to request an employer identification number.

Such entities can be used to facilitate underreporting of income, fictitious deductions, non-filing of tax returns, participating in listed transactions, money laundering, financial crimes and even terrorist financing. The IRS is working with state authorities to identify these entities and to bring the owners of these entities into compliance with the law.

Zero Wages

Filing a phony wage-or-income-related informational return to replace a legitimate information return has been used as an illegal method to lower the amount of taxes owed. Typically, a Form 4852 (Substitute Form W-2) or a “corrected” Form 1099 is used as a way to improperly reduce taxable income to zero. The taxpayer may also submit a statement rebutting wages and taxes reported by a payer to the IRS.

Sometimes, fraudsters even include an explanation on their Form 4852 that cites statutory language on the definition of wages or may include some reference to a paying company that refuses to issue a corrected Form W-2 for fear of IRS retaliation. Taxpayers should resist any temptation to participate in any of the variations of this scheme. Filings of this type of return may result in a $5,000 penalty.

Misuse of Trusts

For years, unscrupulous promoters have urged taxpayers to transfer assets into trusts. While there are many legitimate, valid uses of trusts in tax and estate planning, some highly questionable transactions promise reduction of income subject to tax, deductions for personal expenses and reduced estate or gift taxes. Such trusts rarely deliver the tax benefits promised and are used primarily as a means to avoid income tax liability and hide assets from creditors, including the IRS.

IRS personnel have recently seen an increase in the improper use of private annuity trusts and foreign trusts to shift income and deduct personal expenses. As with other arrangements, taxpayers should seek the advice of a trusted professional before entering a trust arrangement.

Fuel Tax Credit Scams

The IRS receives claims for the fuel tax credit that are excessive. Some taxpayers, such as farmers who use fuel for off-highway business purposes, may be eligible for the fuel tax credit. But other individuals are claiming the tax credit for nontaxable uses of fuel when their occupations or income levels make the claim unreasonable. Fraud involving the fuel tax credit is considered a frivolous tax claim and can result in a penalty of $5,000.

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Common Abusive Domestic Trust Schemes

Domestic trusts are trusts created in the U.S. Here are some common abusive domestic trust schemes:

1.   Business Trust.  This involves the transfer of an ongoing business to a trust. Also called an unincorporated business organization, a pure trust or a constitutional trust, it gives the appearance that the taxpayer has given up control of his or her business. In reality, through trustees or other entities controlled by the taxpayer, he or she still runs the day-to-day activities and controls the business's income stream. Such arrangements provide no tax relief. The courts have held that the business income is taxable to the taxpayer under a variety of legal concepts, including lack of economic substance (sham theory), assignment of income, or that the arrangement is a grantor trust. In some circumstances, the trust could be taxed as a corporation.


2.  Equipment or service trust.  This trust is formed to hold equipment that is rented or leased to the business trust, often at inflated rates. The business trust reduces its income by claiming deductions for payments to the equipment trust. This type of arrangement has the same pitfalls as the business trust, and it will result in no tax reduction.


3.  Family residence trust.  Taxpayers transfer family residences and furnishings to a trust, which sometimes rents the residence back to the taxpayer. The trust deducts depreciation and the expenses of maintaining and operating the residence including gardening, pool service and utilities. The courts have consistently collapsed these types of trusts, taxing income to the taxpayer and disallowing personal expenses.


4.  Charitable trust.  Taxpayers transfer assets or income to a trust claiming to be a charitable organization. The trust or organization pays for personal, education or recreation expenses on behalf of the taxpayer or family members. The trust then claims the payments as charitable deductions on its tax returns. These alleged charitable organizations often are not qualified and have no IRS exemption letter; hence, contributions are not deductible. Charitable deductions are not allowed when the donor receives personal benefit from the alleged gift.


5.  Asset protection trust  These trusts are promoted as a means of avoiding liability for judgments against an individual or business. However, beware of any asset protection trust marketed as part of a package to reduce federal income or employment taxes. The courts can ignore such trusts and order the taxpayer's property sold to satisfy the outstanding liabilities.

 

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Common Foreign Schemes

1.  Abusive Foreign Trust Schemes: The foreign trust schemes usually start off as a series of domestic trusts layered upon one another.  This set up is used to give the appearance that the taxpayer has turned his/her business and assets over to a trust and is no longer in control of the business or its assets.  Once transferred to the domestic trust, the income and expenses are passed to one or more foreign trusts, typically in tax haven countries.

As an example, a taxpayer's business is split into two trusts. One trust would be the business trust that is in charge of the daily operations.  The other trust is an equipment trust formed to hold the business's equipment that is leased back to the business trust at inflated rates to nullify any income reported on the business trust tax return (Form 1041).  Next the income from the equipment trust is distributed to foreign trust-one, again, which nullifies any tax due on the equipment trust tax return.  Foreign trust-one then distributes all or most of its income to foreign trust-two.  Since all of foreign trust-two's income is foreign based there is no filing requirement.

Once the assets are in foreign trust-two, a bank account is opened either under the trust name or an International Business Corporation (IBC).  The trust documentation and business records of this scheme all make it appear that the taxpayer is no longer in control of his/her business or its assets.  The reality is that nothing ever changed.  The taxpayer still exercises full control over his/her business and assets.  There can be many different variations to the scheme.

2.  International Business Corporations (IBC): The taxpayer establishes an IBC with the exact name as that of his/her business.  The IBC also has a bank account in the foreign country.  As the taxpayer receives checks from customers, he sends them to the bank in the foreign country.  The foreign bank then uses its correspondent account in the to process the checks so that it never would appear to the customer, upon reviewing the canceled check that the payment was sent offshore.  Once the checks clear, the taxpayer's IBC account is credited for the check payments.  Here the taxpayer has, again, transferred the unreported income offshore to a tax haven jurisdiction.

3.  False Billing Schemes: A taxpayer sets up an International Business Corporation (IBC) in a tax haven country with a nominee as the owner (usually the promoter).  A bank account is then opened under the IBC.  On the bank's records the taxpayer would be listed as a signatory on the account.  The promoter then issues invoices to the taxpayer's business for goods allegedly purchased by the taxpayer.  The taxpayer then sends payment to the IBC that gets deposited into the joint account held by the IBC and taxpayer.  The taxpayer takes a business deduction for the payment to the IBC thereby reducing his/her taxable income and has safely placed the unreported income into the foreign bank account.

 

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Emerging Foreign Schemes


1.  Fictitious or Overstated Invoicing.  Some U.S. taxpayers have entered into schemes in which the taxpayer's U.S. business is billed by a purportedly unrelated offshore entity for goods or services (e.g., "consulting services") that are either nonexistent or overvalued.


2.  Offshore Deferred Compensation Arrangements.  Many highly compensated professional persons and business owners in the U.S. are being solicited to participate in "offshore deferred compensation plans". The U.S. taxpayer is encouraged to sever an existing employment relationship and substitute an arrangement in which the nominal employer is a foreign "employee leasing" company. The supposed result of this abusive arrangement is that the taxation of a large portion of the professional's or business owner's salary is deferred while he/she gains immediate access to the funds through loans or offshore-based credit cards. An improper deduction for employee leasing expenses is also created on the corporate tax return.


3.  Factoring of Accounts Receivable.  A U.S. taxpayer's business may discount or "factor" its receivables to a purportedly unrelated foreign business entity. The discount or factoring fee significantly reduces U.S. tax liability, and is moved to an offshore entity where it can either be invested free of U.S. tax or repatriated for the taxpayer's use and enjoyment.


4.  Abusive Insurance Arrangements.   Some promoters have devised arrangements that are characterized as insurance arrangements, giving rise to a deduction for the U.S. taxpayer for "premiums" paid to a purportedly unrelated offshore insurance company. Often these arrangements are merely self-insurance, lacking in real transfer of risk.


5.  Shifting of Income Using Offshore Private Annuities.  Some promoters suggest that U.S. taxpayers may avoid or substantially defer tax on income streams or capital gains by exchanging property for an unsecured private annuity.  In another abusive scheme an offshore private annuity is used in conjunction with an offshore variable life insurance policy as a devise to "decontrol" a foreign corporation or other entity used in an abusive sequence of transactions.  As a result the promoter claims that the foreign corporation or entity is owned by the insurance policy and is not a, controlled foreign corporation, foreign personal holding company, passive foreign investment company, or any entity controlled by a U.S. person whose income could be taxed in the United States to its owner.


6.  Offshore Internet Business.   For businesses conducted primarily through the internet, promoters offer "kits" which give the appearance that the business is foreign owned and operated. Transactions may be routed through offshore servers, and business receipts may be collected through offshore bank accounts or credit card merchant accounts. These schemes particularly target businesses that offer delivery of computer software and other digital products such as music, pictures, or video. They may also provide a means of operating offshore gaming activities.


7.  Offshore Wagering.  Over the last few years, gambling websites have proliferated on the Internet. Many of these virtual casinos are organized and operated from offshore locations, where the operators feel free from State and Federal interference. The operators of these activities may suggest that players in the U.S. are not subject to tax on their winnings, and may handle collections and disbursements in ways designed to facilitate avoidance of U.S. taxes.


8.  Repatriation of Offshore Funds Using Credit Cards.  Credit cards (such as MasterCard and VISA) issued by tax haven domiciled banks are a preferred method used by U.S. taxpayers to anonymously and covertly repatriate offshore funds that may or may not have been previously taxed. American Express cards are used in the same way but differ in that these cards are issued directly by American Express rather than by member banks.


Source:  Internal Revenue Service Publications.   For information about specific tax schemes that have been listed by the IRS as abusive tax shelters, visit http://www.irs.gov/businesses/corporations/article/0,,id=120633,00.html

 

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*In order to qualify for a reward, a whistleblower does not have to possess information regarding a criminal tax fraud scheme.   If a whistleblower otherwise qualifies, the taxes simply have to be due. 


 
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