Earlier this week, the Attorneys General of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut sued the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service challenging a new IRS rule that would preclude individuals in those states from claiming deductions for charitable contributions to local governments. This lawsuit is the latest chapter in the battle over the “SALT cap,” enacted as part of the 2017 tax reform legislation which imposes a $10,000 annual limitation on the deduction for state and local taxes.

Enacted in 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was touted as the most significant tax reform legislation in three decades. Among its provisions is a $10,000 annual limitation on the deduction for state and local tax, which includes state and local income taxes, local real estate taxes and state sales taxes. Previously, there was no monetary limitation for an individual taxpayer’s SALT deduction. The new limitation is more detrimental to individuals in high tax states, such as California and New York. The average SALT deduction in California was around $18,500, while the average deduction in New York was around $22,000. The SALT limitation imposed by the TCJA applies to taxable years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, and before Jan. 1, 2026.

Some states have attempted to work around the SALT limitation using creative legislative solutions. Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a new state-operated charitable contribution fund to accept donations for the purposes of improving health care and public education in New York state. Taxpayers who itemize deductions may claim these charitable contributions as deductions on their federal and state tax returns. Any taxpayer making a donation may also claim a state tax credit equal to 85 percent of the donation amount for the tax year after the donation is made. Taxpayers may also make qualified contributions to certain not-for-profit organizations for specified purposes. The law also authorizes local governments and school districts to establish charitable gift reserve funds and to offer real property tax credits to incentivize contributions to these new local charitable funds.

New Jersey soon followed suit, with Gov. Phil Murphy signing into law a measure allowing municipalities, counties and school districts to establish charitable funds where taxpayers can donate in return for a property tax credit. In return for donations, taxpayers would receive credits on their property tax bill of up to 90 percent of the donation. Taxpayers would then be able to claim their donation as a charitable deduction on their federal income tax return.

In Connecticut, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2018 that allowed municipalities to create “community supporting organizations” classified as charitable organizations. Taxpayers could make contributions to these organizations and most of that donation would be credited toward their local property tax liability.

In response to these state initiatives, the IRS issued a new rule aimed at nullifying the tax benefits these states were making available to charitable givers. The new rule – set to take effect on August 12, 2019 – requires taxpayers to subtract the value of any state and local tax credits they receive for charitable giving from their federal charitable contribution deduction.

The lawsuit filed this week by New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut contends that the new IRS rule is arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the federal Administrative Procedures Act. The complaint further alleges that the rule threatens economic harm to the states by discouraging charitable giving, and by depriving school districts, municipalities, and counties of important funding.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

 

The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has announced new efforts to crack down on Business Email Compromise (BEC) schemes and those who profit from such scams.  BEC fraud schemes generally involve attempts to compromise the email accounts of victims to send fraudulent payment instructions to financial institutions or business associates in order to misappropriate funds or to assist in financial fraud.  Often, the unsuspecting victim is conned into thinking a legitimate email from a trusted person or entity is directing them to make a payment for a normal business activity.  Based upon Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) data, BEC scams generated more than $300 million in fraud proceeds each month during 2018, with a cumulative total exceeding billions of dollars stolen from businesses and individuals.

As part of its FinCEN Exchange forum, FinCEN convened a meeting this week in New York City to focus was on identifying and combatting BEC schemes.  Representatives from depository institutions, federal and state government agencies, a federal task force, money transmitters, third-party service providers, and technology companies attended the session.  The FinCEN Exchange is a voluntary program established in 2017 to convene law enforcement and financial institutions from across the country to share information.

FinCEN also issued an update to its “Advisory to Financial Institutions on E-mail Compromise Fraud Schemes,” first published in 2016.  The updated advisory offers updated operational definitions, provides information on the targeting of non-business entities and data by email compromise schemes, highlights general trends in BEC schemes targeting sectors and jurisdictions, and alerts financial institutions to risks associated with the targeting of vulnerable business processes.  The advisory also highlights the potential for financial institutions to share information about subjects and accounts affiliated with email compromise schemes in the interest of identifying risks of fraudulent transactions and money laundering.

FinCEN also released a Financial Trend Analysis of Bank Secrecy Act data that explores industries targeted and methodologies used by BEC scammers.  It notes that the number of SARs describing BEC incidents reported monthly has more than doubled, from averaging nearly 500 per month in 2016, to above 1,100 per month in 2018.  The total value of attempted BEC thefts reported in SARs has almost tripled, to an average of $301 million per month in 2018 from $110 million per month in 2016.  The use of fraudulent vendor or client invoices grew as a BEC methodology, from 30 percent of sampled 2017 incidents, to 39 percent in 2018, becoming the most common BEC method.  Impersonating a CEO or other high-ranking business officer as a methodology declined, accounting for 12 percent in 2018 from 33 percent of sampled incidents in 2017.  Impersonation of an outside entity was described in 20 percent of 2018 reports.  Manufacturing and construction businesses were the top targets for BEC fraud in 2017 and 2018.

In another ongoing effort, FinCEN’s Rapid Response Program, in collaboration with law enforcement, recently surpassed $500 million in recovered funds.  Under the program, when U.S. law enforcement receives a BEC complaint from a victim or a financial institution, the relevant information is forwarded to FinCEN, which moves quickly to track and recover the funds.  The program utilizes FinCEN’s ability to rapidly share information with counterpart Financial Intelligence Units (FIU) in more than 164 jurisdictions, and uses these relationships to encourage foreign authorities to intercede and hold funds or reverse wire transfers.

Finally, the Egmont Group of FIUs has issued a public bulletin to alert competent authorities and reporting entities of key typologies and money laundering risks associated with BEC fraud schemes.  This bulletin was the result of an initiative by FinCEN and the FIU of Luxembourg, in collaboration with nine other FIUs.  The Egmont Group is a united body of 164 FIUs that provides a platform for the secure exchange of expertise and financial intelligence to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

By Kristina Burland and Matthew D. Lee

A precedent-setting criminal prosecution of two California executives under the Consumer Product Safety Act is sending a strong warning to corporate boardrooms that the reporting requirements of the CPSA must be taken seriously and that a company’s compliance program must be thoughtfully designed to ensure that reports are submitted promptly.

In an indictment handed up in March, a federal grand jury charged that Simon Chu and Charley Loh – executives of two California corporations that import and distribute dehumidifiers from China – had received multiple reports that the dehumidifiers were defective and could catch fire, but failed to notify the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

According to the indictment, Chu and Loh knew that they were required to report their knowledge of the defects, but waited at least six months before doing so and continued to sell the dehumidifiers to retailers.

Chu and Loh were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, failure to furnish information under the CPSA, and defraud the CPSC, as well as one count of wire fraud. The indictment identifies a number of unnamed, unindicted co-conspirators, including the two corporations that Chu and Loh work for, referred to as “Unindicted Co-Conspirator Company A” and “Unindicted Co-Conspirator Company B” throughout the indictment. The case is being prosecuted in the Central District of California.

CPSA Reporting Requirements

Section 15 of the CPSA requires every manufacturer, distributor and retailer of a consumer product – as well as all directors, officers, and agents thereof – to “immediately” inform the CPSC of a product defect that could “create a substantial product hazard,” or “creates a substantial risk of injury to the public.”

Regulations clarify that the requirement for “immediate” reporting means “within 24 hours” of receiving information that the product “contains a defect which could create a substantial risk of injury to the public, or creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.”

Chu’s and Loh’s Conduct

According to the indictment, Chu and Loh became aware of the defects associated with the dehumidifiers as early as July 2012, when they saw a video that depicted a burning dehumidifier resembling those imported, distributed, and sold by their companies. Soon after, Chu tested the plastic used in the Chinese dehumidifiers and confirmed that it would burn.

In September 2012, Loh allegedly informed a manager of one of the companies that the dehumidifiers could catch fire, and that the material used in them did not meet safety standards. But the indictment alleges that manager recommended that Chu and Loh “delay a recall … for six to nine months.” Later that month, Loh allegedly told high-ranking executives at one company that he believed the defects should be reported to the CPSC. However, neither Chu nor Loh submitted a report to the CPSC, and they continued to sell the defective dehumidifiers to retail companies in the United States from September 2012 to April 2013.

Approximately 2.2 million Chinese dehumidifiers, including those sold by the companies that employed Chu and Loh, were ultimately recalled in September 2013.

The indictment alleges that Chu and Loh “knowingly and willfully failed to immediately report,” and “willfully caused others” to fail to immediately report to the CPSC “upon receiving information that reasonably supported the conclusion that the Chinese dehumidifiers contained a defect that could create a substantial product hazard, and created an unreasonable risk of serious injury and death.”

The indictment also alleges that the executives “deliberately withheld” information about the dangers of the dehumidifiers from retailers who purchased the dehumidifiers for resale as well as the insurance companies who paid for damages associated with the defects.

Takeaways

The government has routinely brought civil actions against corporations for failure to report product defects pursuant to Section 15. Indeed, the prosecution of Chu and Loh is related to a civil CPSC administrative matter brought against Chinese company Gree Electric Appliances that was resolved in 2016. In that case, Gree and others agreed to pay a $15.5 million civil penalty for failures to report the defective dehumidifiers.

The indictment signals that the U.S. Department of Justice is now willing to prosecute both corporations and their executives for failing to comply with the reporting requirement set forth in Section 15. Criminal penalties for failure to report product defects can no longer be ruled out. As U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna of the Central District of California cautioned, the indictment “sends a clear message: If you plan to profit from selling defective products, you should also plan to face justice.”

Earlier this month, the five leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement (known as the “J5”) met in Washington to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the formation of the J5 organization and to announce their first year results. The J5 consists of the leaders of tax enforcement agencies in five countries: Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, England, and the United States. The J5 was established to focus on cross-border tax and money laundering threats, including cybercrime, cryptocurrency, and enablers of global tax crimes, and to share intelligence and data. In a press release, the J5 revealed that its member organizations are involved in, and collaborating about, numerous global tax evasion investigations:

The J5 is involved in more than 50 investigations involving sophisticated international enablers of tax evasion, including a global financial institution and its intermediaries who facilitate taxpayers to hide their income and assets. These highly harmful, high-end enablers of tax evasion were previously thought to be beyond the reach of the member countries. The agencies are also cooperating on cases covering crimes from money laundering and the smuggling of illicit commodities to personal tax frauds and evasion. Additionally, there have already been hundreds of data exchanges between J5 partner agencies, with more data being exchanged in the past year than the previous 10 years combined.

“I’m extremely proud of the work we have accomplished in just one year since the formation of the J5,” said Don Fort, Chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division. “Each country came to the group with expectations and challenges that needed to be overcome so we could each realize our goal. We have found innovative ways to tackle these problems, remove barriers, and develop processes that make the sum of all of our parts a much more efficient and successful organization. It is not a good time to be a tax criminal on the run—your days are numbered.”

Part of the work of the J5 is focused on establishing mechanisms by which partner countries may share information in a more organized fashion. One such mechanism is the FCInet platform, which is a decentralized virtual computer network that enables agencies to compare, analyze, and exchange data anonymously. It helps users obtain the right information in real-time and enables agencies from different jurisdictions to work together while respecting each other’s local autonomy.

More information about the J5 is available at www.irs.gov/J5.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

Last week, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced its first-ever civil penalty against a cryptocurrency exchanger for willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). According to the FinCEN Assessment of Civil Money Penalty (Assessment), California-based Eric Powers failed to register with FinCEN as a money services business (MSB); develop, implement, and maintain an effective written AML program; report suspicious transactions conducted by, at, or through Mr. Powers; and file currency transaction reports – all requirements of the BSA and implementing regulations.

Mr. Powers operated as a peer-to-peer exchanger of the convertible virtual currency bitcoin, meaning he purchased and sold bitcoin to and from other people. Mr. Powers conducted over 1700 such transactions between December 6, 2012 and September 24, 2014, and completed these transactions by sending or receiving physical currency in person, by mail, or via wire transfer.

FinCEN shed any doubt about the application of the BSA to virtual currency in March 2013, and made clear that those like Mr. Powers who are engaged as a business in the exchange of virtual currency (exchangers) as well as those issuing and redeeming virtual currency (administrators) are generally considered MSBs within the meaning of the BSA. See FIN-2013-G001, “Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Persons Administering, Exchanging, or Using Virtual Currencies,” March 18, 2013, available here. Administrators or exchangers who “accept and transmit a convertible virtual currency” or “buy[ ] or sell[ ] convertible virtual currency” are money transmitters under the regulations implementing the BSA. See id.

In pertinent part, the BSA requires MSBs to:

  • Register with FinCEN;
  • Establish and implement a written Anti-Money Laundering (AML) program;
  • Report transactions that the MSB “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” are suspicious; and
  • File currency transaction reports (CTRs) for transactions that involve the physical transfer of $10,000 or more in currency.

Mr. Powers failed to follow these requirements. First, Mr. Powers did not register with FinCEN as an MSB, despite his “awareness of BSA requirements” as evidenced by his participation in “online discussions pertaining to AML compliance, including specific conversations about registering as an MSB.” See Assessment at 3.

Second, Mr. Powers failed to implement an AML program. Mr. Powers did not produce any AML policies, procedures, and internal controls documents to FinCEN and had no written policies or procedures for filing any BSA reports. Mr. Powers also openly stated that he would assist customers in circumventing AML laws. See Assessment at 4.

Third, Mr. Powers did not report any suspicious transactions, despite the fact that he “processed transactions that bore strong indicia of illicit activity.” See Assessment at 5. For example, his bitcoin wallet was associated with hundreds of transactions for customers doing business on a darknet site shut down by federal law enforcement authorities in 2013. He also conducted transactions with numerous customers who used torrent services to anonymize their location and identity, which the Assessment describes as a “strong indicator of potential illicit activity when no additional due diligence is conducted.” However, no suspicious activity reports were ever filed. See Assessment at 5-6.

Finally, Mr. Powers conducted numerous transactions which required CTRs, but failed to file any CTRs with FinCEN. The Assessment estimates that Mr. Powers should have filed 243 CTRs. See Assessment at 7.

Mr. Powers has agreed to pay a $35,350 fine and to cease providing “money transmission services” within the meaning of the BSA. The Assessment notes that in reaching the fine, it took into consideration “the extensive cooperation provided by Mr. Powers” in FinCEN’s investigation. See Assessment at 8.

Click here to read FinCEN’s Assessment of Civil Money Penalty.

Yesterday, the Internal Revenue Service’s Large Business and International division (LB&I) announced three additional compliance campaigns, bringing the total number of campaigns announced to date to 53. These campaigns reflect LB&I’s movement toward issue-based examinations and a compliance process in which LB&I decides which compliance issues that present risk require a response in the form of one or multiple treatment streams to achieve compliance objectives. This approach is intended to make the best use of the IRS’s knowledge and to deploy the right resources to address these issues. The campaigns are the culmination of an extensive effort to redefine large business compliance work and build a supportive infrastructure inside LB&I. The overall goal is to improve return selection, identify issues representing a risk of non-compliance, and make the greatest use of limited resources.

Of note, the three new campaigns are all focused on offshore activities of U.S. taxpayers, reflecting the IRS’s continuing prioritization of international tax enforcement. A description of each new campaign follows:

Captive Services Provider Campaign

The section 482 regulations and the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines provide rules for determining arm’s length pricing for transactions between controlled entities, including transactions in which a foreign captive subsidiary performs services exclusively for the parent or other members of the multinational group. The arm’s length price is determined by taking into consideration data available on companies performing functions, employing assets, and assuming risks that are comparable to those of the captive subsidiary. Excessive pricing for these services would inappropriately shift taxable income to these foreign entities and erode the U.S. tax base. The goal of this campaign is to ensure that U.S. multinational companies are paying their captive service providers no more than arm’s length prices. The treatment streams for this campaign are issue-based examinations and soft letters.

Offshore Private Banking Campaign

U.S. persons are subject to tax on worldwide income from all sources including income generated outside of the United States. It is not illegal or improper for U.S. taxpayers to own offshore structures, accounts, or assets. However, taxpayers must comply with income tax and information reporting requirements associated with these offshore activities. The IRS is in possession of records that identify taxpayers with transactions or accounts at offshore private banks. This campaign addresses tax noncompliance and the information reporting associated with these offshore accounts. The IRS will initially address tax noncompliance through the examination and soft letter treatment streams. Additional treatment streams may be developed based on feedback received throughout the campaign.

Loose Filed Forms 5471

Form 5471, Information Return of U.S. Persons With Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations, must be attached to an income tax return (or a partnership or exempt organization return, if applicable) and filed by the return’s due date including extensions. Some taxpayers are incorrectly filing Forms 5471 by sending the form to the IRS without attaching it to a tax return (or partnership or exempt organization return, if applicable). If a Form 5471 is required to be filed and was not attached to an original return, an amended return with the Form 5471 attached should be filed. The goal of this campaign is to improve compliance with the requirement to attach a Form 5471 to an income tax, partnership or exempt organization return.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

Yesterday the IRS announced the results of a nationwide two-week “education and enforcement campaign” regarding employment tax compliance. For several years, the IRS has made employment tax compliance a top enforcement priority, on both the civil and criminal sides. With payroll taxes withheld from employee wages accounting for nearly 72 percent of all tax revenue collected by the U.S. Treasury, employment tax noncompliance is one of the biggest problems for the IRS. The IRS announcement revealed that between March 25 and April 5, IRS Field Collection and IRS Criminal Investigation undertook a special campaign “to shore up this area of compliance.”

“Payroll taxes form a key part of our tax system,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “When individuals and businesses evade their employment tax obligations, it not only undermines our tax system, it also creates an unfair situation for people who are following the law. The IRS is committed to compliance in the payroll tax arena, which helps ensure fairness and faith in our tax system.”

On the civil side, IRS revenue officers made personal visits during the two-week campaign to nearly 100 businesses around the country suspected of having serious issues with employment tax compliance. Business owners were informed about ways to catch up with back payroll taxes, how to stay current and the potential for civil and criminal penalties. The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty is one example of the legal ramifications of not collecting, accounting for and paying payroll taxes to the IRS when required. “Enforcement is never our first resort, but protecting this significant source of revenue to the nation deserves our best efforts, including reaching out to help businesses help themselves,” said Darren Guillot, Director of IRS Field Collection Operations.

On the criminal enforcement side, IRS CI worked with the Department of Justice Tax Division and U.S. attorneys around the nation to focus on about 50 law enforcement actions related to employment tax crimes. During the two weeks, IRS CI indicted 12 individuals, executed four search warrants and saw six individuals or businesses sentenced for crimes associated with payroll taxes. In addition to these early numbers, roughly two dozen more enforcement actions are planned in the weeks following the two-week campaign as well.

“Employers know the rules—they must deposit and report employment taxes accurately—this is non-negotiable,” said Don Fort, Chief of IRS Criminal Investigation. “When employers fail to pay over the required employment taxes for whatever reason, they skip out on one of their most important responsibilities as a business owner. Not only are those employers cheating the system and their employees, they are cheating future generations relying on those taxes to help build the future.”

The IRS noted in its announcement that the agency has several tools to bolster payroll tax compliance including educational outreach, data analytics, civil investigations by highly trained revenue officers, as well as harsher measures such as lawsuits, seizures, and criminal referrals to IRS CI.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

With April 15 just around the corner, the Justice Department’s Tax Division has issued its annual public warning to would-be tax cheats. It is no secret that the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service significantly ramp up their publicity campaigns regarding tax prosecutions in the weeks leading up to April 15, in an attempt to deter any taxpayer thinking about filing a false tax return or otherwise cheating on their taxes. “Filing a tax return and paying taxes are serious acts and willfully filing false and fraudulent tax returns and deliberately evading paying taxes are criminal acts,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division.  “During tax season and every season, the Tax Division is committed to achieving justice through the prosecution of those who choose to engage in tax crimes.” Today’s warning includes a summary of recent criminal tax prosecutions throughout the country, as follows:

Recent Tax Prosecutions of Individuals

  • In April 2019, a Houston, Texas, man was sentenced to 360 months in prison for multiple conspiracy and tax crimes, including corporate tax evasion. The defendant engaged in the fraudulent sale of second-hand prescription drugs and tax crimes. The court imposed a criminal forfeiture money judgment of $20,326,464.17 and ordered $716,986 in restitution to the IRS.
  • In April 2019, a District of Columbia woman was sentenced to 54 months in prison for conspiring to defraud the United States and commit theft of public money and aggravated identity theft. She engaged in a fraudulent tax refund scheme and was ordered to pay $1,806,876.66 in restitution to the IRS.
  • In March 2019, a Salinas, California, woman was sentenced to 60 months in prison for conspiring to file false income tax returns and bank fraud. She was ordered to pay $1,641,610 in restitution to the IRS.
  • In January 2019, a Union, South Carolina, mechanic was sentenced to 36 months in prison for wire fraud and filing a false income tax return. After creating a false invoice scheme, he embezzled money from his employer and failed to report the income on his tax returns. He was ordered to pay $1,941,377.32 in restitution.
  • In November 2018, a Farmington, Michigan, trucking business owner was sentenced to 33 months in prison for wire fraud and willfully failing to file a tax return. The court ordered restitution of $2,919,265 to a third party victim and $142,069 to the IRS.
  • In October 2018, a former IRS-Criminal Investigation special agent was sentenced to 51 months in prison for filing false tax returns, obstruction of justice, and stealing government money. A federal jury in the Eastern District of California convicted the defendant, who was also a CPA.

Recent Employment Tax Prosecutions

  • In March 2019, a Raleigh, North Carolina, mental health executive was sentenced to 30 months in prison for failing to report and pay almost $1.7 million in employment taxes to the IRS.
  • In November 2018, a Collinsville, Virginia, pharmacist was sentenced to 41 months in prison for failing to pay over more than $5 million in employment taxes to the IRS. The defendant spent the money owed to the United States on a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a jet ski, stock market investments and real property.
  • In June 2018, a former Virginia Software Company CEO was sentenced to 21 months in prison for conspiring to defraud the government of more than $1.8 million in payroll taxes. Along with his co-conspirator, he also failed to remit the full amount of employee retirement contributions to the company’s retirement plan.

Recent Prosecutions Involving Offshore Banking

  • In March 2019, one of the largest Israeli banks, Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank Ltd., and two of its subsidiaries, United Mizrahi Bank (Switzerland) Ltd. and Mizrahi Tefahot Trust Company Ltd., entered a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the Department of Justice. Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank Ltd. paid $195 million to the United States as a direct result of its role in defrauding the United States, specifically the IRS, by conspiring with U.S. taxpayer-customers and enabling U.S. taxpayers to hide income and assets from the IRS.
  • In October 2018, a Scottsdale, Arizona man, who managed a resort with family members in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for filing a false tax return underreporting his income and omitting $9.7 million in investment income from two offshore bank accounts in Liechtenstein.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

 

The Internal Revenue Service has included tax return preparer fraud on its “Dirty Dozen” list of common tax scams for 2019 and offered tips to help taxpayers avoid unscrupulous tax preparers. With the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the most sweeping tax reform legislation in more than 30 years now in effect, some taxpayers may choose to have a paid professional prepare their tax returns this year even if they have done it themselves in years past. The IRS reminds taxpayers to be careful when selecting a tax professional. Though most tax professionals provide honest, high-quality service, a minority of dishonest preparers operate each filing season perpetrating refund fraud, identity theft and other scams that hurt innocent taxpayers.

Compiled annually by the IRS, the “Dirty Dozen” lists a variety of common scams that taxpayers may encounter any time of the year, but many of these schemes peak during filing season as people prepare their tax returns or seek help from tax professionals. To help protect taxpayers, the IRS highlights each of these scams on twelve consecutive days to help raise awareness.

“Tax professionals provide an incredibly valuable service to taxpayers and our nation’s tax system,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “We encourage people to carefully choose who they trust with their most sensitive tax and financial information. There are some simple steps taxpayers can follow to make sure they’re getting good, professional help.”

The text of the IRS’s warning about tax return preparer fraud follows:

Tax return preparers are a vital part of the U.S. tax system. During tax year 2016, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, about 53.5 percent of taxpayers used a paid preparer. Selecting the right tax professional is vitally important. Taxpayers are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of their tax return, regardless of who prepares it. The IRS protects taxpayers by assessing significant civil penalties against shady return preparers and working with the Justice Department to shutdown scams and prosecute the criminals behind them.

Choose return preparers wisely

It is important to choose carefully when hiring an individual or firm to prepare a tax return. Well-intentioned taxpayers can be misled by preparers who don’t understand taxes or who mislead people into taking credits or deductions they aren’t entitled to claim. Scam preparers often do this to increase their fee.

Here are a few tips to consider to help avoid fraudsters:

– Look for a preparer who is available year-round. In the event questions come up about a tax return, taxpayers may need to contact the preparer after the filing season is over.

– Ask if the preparer has an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). Paid tax return preparers are required to register with the IRS, have a PTIN and include it on tax returns.

– Inquire whether the tax return preparer has a professional credential (enrolled agent, certified public accountant or attorney), belongs to a professional organization or attends continuing education classes. Because tax law can be complex, competent tax preparers remain up-to-date on tax topics. The IRS website has more information regarding national tax professional organizations.

– Check the preparer’s qualifications. Use the IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers with Credentials and Select Qualifications. This tool can help locate a preparer with the preferred qualifications. A searchable and sortable listing of tax preparers registered with the IRS, the directory includes the name, city, state and zip code of attorneys, CPAs, enrolled agents, Annual Filing Season Program participants, enrolled retirement plan agents and enrolled actuaries.

– Check the preparer’s history. Check the Better Business Bureau website for information about the preparer. Look for disciplinary actions and the license status for credentialed preparers. For CPAs, check with the State Board of Accountancy. For attorneys, check with the State Bar Association. For Enrolled Agents, go to IRS.gov and search for “verify enrolled agent status” or check the Directory.

– Ask about service fees. Avoid preparers who base fees on a percentage of their client’s refund or boast bigger refunds than their competition. Don’t give tax documents, Social Security numbers or other information to a preparer if merely inquiring about their services and fees. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous preparers have used this information to improperly file returns without the taxpayer’s permission.

– Make sure the preparer offers IRS e-file and ask to e-file the tax return. Paid preparers who do taxes for more than 10 clients generally must file electronically. Since electronic filing began in the 1980s, the IRS has processed more than 1.5 billion e-filed individual tax returns. It’s the safest and most accurate way to file.

– Provide records and receipts. Good preparers ask to see these documents. They’ll also ask questions to determine the client’s total income, deductions, tax credits and other items. Do not hire a preparer who e-files a tax return using a pay stub instead of a Form W-2. This is against IRS e-file rules.

– Understand representation rules. Attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents can represent any client before the IRS in any situation. Annual Filing Season Program participants may represent taxpayers in limited situations if they prepared and signed the tax return. However, non-credentialed preparers who do not participate in this program may only represent clients on returns they prepared and signed before the end of 2015.

– Never sign a blank or incomplete return.

– Review the tax return before signing. Be sure to ask questions if something is not clear or appears inaccurate. Any refund should go directly to the taxpayer – not into the preparer’s bank account. Reviewing the routing and bank account number on the completed return is always a good idea.

– Report abusive tax preparers to the IRS. Use Form 14157, Complaint: Tax Return Preparer. If a return preparer is suspected of filing or changing the return without the client’s consent, also file Form 14157-A, Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit. Forms are available on IRS.gov.

www.irs.gov/chooseataxpro has additional information to help taxpayers including tips on choosing a preparer, the differences in credentials and qualifications, as well as how to submit a complaint regarding an unscrupulous tax return preparer.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

Despite a steep drop in tax-related identity theft in recent years, the Internal Revenue Service warns taxpayers that the scam remains serious enough to earn a spot on the 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams. “Taxpayers should continue to protect their sensitive tax and financial data to help protect against identity thieves,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said. “The IRS and the Security Summit partners in the states and the private sector have joined forces to improve our defenses against tax-related identity theft, sharply reducing the number of victims. But we encourage taxpayers to continue to be on the lookout for identity theft schemes, including email phishing attempts and other tax scams.”

Compiled annually by the IRS, the “Dirty Dozen” lists a variety of common scams that taxpayers may encounter any time of the year, but many of these schemes peak during filing season as people prepare their tax returns or seek help from tax professionals. To help protect taxpayers, the IRS highlights each of these scams on twelve consecutive days to help raise awareness.

The text of the IRS’s warning about identity theft follows:

Tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses a stolen Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to file a fraudulent tax return claiming a refund.

The IRS, the states and the nation’s private-sector tax industry began working together in 2015 as the Security Summit to fight tax-related identity theft. Security Summit partners enacted a series of safeguards that are making inroads against identity thieves and protecting taxpayers. These safeguards include expanded information sharing among the Summit partners as well as strengthened internal IRS controls to guard against fraudulent tax returns.

Taxpayers should remember that identity thieves constantly strive to find a scheme that works. Once their ruse begins to fail as taxpayers become aware of their ploys, they change tactics. Taxpayers and tax professionals must remain vigilant to the various scams and schemes used for data thefts. Business filers should be aware that cybercriminals also file fraudulent Forms 1120, U.S. Corporate Income Tax Return, using stolen business identities and they, too, should be alert.

Security tips for taxpayers, tax professionals

The IRS and its partners remind taxpayers and tax professionals that they can do their part to help in this effort. Taxpayers and tax professionals should:

– Always use security software with firewall and antivirus protections. Make sure security software is turned on and can automatically update. Encrypt sensitive files such as tax records stored on the computer. Use strong passwords.

– Learn to recognize and avoid phishing emails and threatening phone calls and texts from thieves posing as legitimate organizations such as banks, credit card companies and government organizations, including the IRS. Do not click on links or download attachments from unknown or suspicious emails. Invest in good anti-spyware and anti-malware software protection.

– Protect personal data. Don’t routinely carry a Social Security card, and make sure tax records are secure. Treat personal information like cash; don’t leave it lying around.

The Security Summit has worked to increase awareness among taxpayers and tax professionals about tax-related identity theft and security steps through its “Taxes. Security. Together.” and “Protect Your Clients; Protect Yourself” campaigns.

Reversing the damage caused by identity theft is often a frustrating and complex process for victims. While identity thieves steal information from sources outside the tax system, the IRS is often the first to inform a victim that identity theft has occurred. The IRS is working diligently to resolve identity theft cases quickly. For more information, see the special identity theft section on IRS.gov.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.