BNA’s Michael J. Bologna and Paul Shukovsky have written a comprehensive article about a pervasive problem facing state tax auditors:  the use by restaurants and other cash-intensive businesses of electronic revenue suppression software, commonly referred to as “Zappers.”  We have previously blogged about efforts by state and federal tax authorities to crack down on the use of “Zapper” software here (reporting on the Connecticut Department of Revenue’s arrest of a New Haven restauranteur) and here (predicting a federal crackdown on tax zapper software).  In their article, entitled “Tax-Zapping Software Costing States $21 Billion,” Messrs. Bologna and Shukovsky note that the use of revenue suppression software by businesses costs states a whopping $21 billion in lost tax revenue.  In a related article, entitled “Zapper Fraud Case Results in Mandatory Real-Time Monitoring,” the authors describe the recent prosecution of a Bellevue, Washington restaurant owner which resulted in a “first-in-the-nation settlement requiring continuous monitoring by the state for five years,” the first time any state has ever required monitoring to resolve charges involving the use of “Zapper” software.

The Justice Department revealed its latest offshore bank resolution by announcing that it had entered into a non-prosecution agreement with a Swiss asset management firm called Prime Partners. This means that Prime Partners will not be criminally prosecuted for participating in what the DOJ characterized as a conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and evade federal income taxes in connection with services that it provided to U.S. accountholders between 2001 and 2010. According to a press release announcing the resolution, the non-prosecution agreement was based upon Prime Partners’ “extraordinary cooperation,” including its voluntary production of approximately 175 client files for non-compliant U.S. taxpayer-clients. The non-prosecution agreement further requires Prime Partners to forfeit $4.32 million to the United States, representing certain fees that it earned by assisting its U.S. taxpayer-clients in opening and maintaining these undeclared accounts, and to pay $680,000 in restitution to the IRS, representing the approximate unpaid taxes arising from the tax evasion by Prime Partners’ U.S. taxpayer-clients.

As part of the non-prosecution agreement, Prime Partners admitted that it knew certain U.S. taxpayers were maintaining undeclared foreign bank accounts with the assistance of Prime Partners in order to evade their U.S. tax obligations, in violation of U.S. law. Prime Partners acknowledged that it helped certain U.S. taxpayer-clients conceal from the IRS their beneficial ownership of undeclared assets maintained in foreign bank accounts by using well-known mechanisms employed by offshore banks to hide funds, such as:

  • creating sham entities, which had no business purpose, that served as the nominal account holders for the accounts;
  • advising U.S. taxpayer-clients not to retain their account statements, to call Prime Partners collect from pay phones, and to destroy any faxes they received from Prime Partners;
  • providing U.S. taxpayer-clients with prepaid debit cards, which were funded with money from the clients’ undeclared accounts; and
  • facilitating cash transfers in the United States between U.S. taxpayer-clients with undeclared accounts.

An unusual feature of this latest bank resolution is what the Justice Department characterizes as Prime Partners’ “voluntary and extraordinary cooperation” with the U.S. government. In early 2009, Prime Partners voluntarily implemented a series of remedial measures to stop assisting U.S. taxpayers in evading federal income taxes, before the initiation of any investigation by the U.S. government. The timing of these corrective actions is particularly notable, as the Justice Department announced its landmark deferred prosecution agreement with the largest bank in Switzerland, UBS AG, in February 2009, and the Internal Revenue Service unveiled its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program approximately 30 days later. In the midst of the announcement of the UBS resolution, many other Swiss banks were advising their U.S. clients to transfer their account holdings to other, smaller Swiss banks in order to avoid detection by U.S. authorities, thereby creating a class of U.S. taxpayers now characterized by authorities as “leavers.” In stark contrast, it appears that Prime Partners embarked on a different course of conduct, implementing corrective action to avoid further violations of U.S. law.

The Justice Department appears to have taken great care to describe publically the extent of Prime Partners’ extensive cooperation, which included the following:

  • Prime Partners’ voluntary production of approximately 175 client files for non-compliant U.S. taxpayers, which included the identities of those U.S. taxpayers;
  • Prime Partners’ willingness to continue to cooperate to the extent permitted by applicable law; and
  • Prime Partners’ representation – based on an investigation by outside counsel, the results of which have been reviewed by the Justice Department – that the misconduct under investigation did not, and does not, extend beyond that described in a statement of facts accompanying the non-prosecution agreement.

Another notable aspect of this case is that while Prime Partners is a Swiss institution, it did not take advantage of the popular yet now-closed “Swiss Bank Program,” which essentially offered amnesty to any Swiss financial institution willing to come forward and make full disclosure of its cross-border activities involving U.S. citizens. Nearly 80 Swiss institutions enrolled in the Swiss Bank Program and successfully resolved their potential exposure under U.S. tax laws by paying steep financial penalties and agreeing to fully cooperate with the U.S. government’s ongoing investigations of offshore tax evasion. Instead of enrolling in the Swiss Bank Program, Prime Partners appears to have conducted an internal investigation, voluntarily disclosed its misconduct to the Justice Department, cooperated with the subsequent government investigation, and attempted to negotiate the best possible deal it could. Prime Partners may have been prompted to undertake such action based upon what the Justice Department has publicly stated is its “willingness to reach fair and appropriate resolutions with entities that come forward in a timely manner, disclose all relevant information regarding their illegal activities and cooperate fully and completely, including naming the individuals engaged in criminal conduct.”

The Justice Department’s announcement that it agreed to a non-prosecution agreement with Prime Partners is no doubt a signal to other financial institutions that the voluntary disclosure “window” remains open (notwithstanding the termination of the Swiss Bank Program), and that institutions demonstrating substantial cooperation – like that of Prime Partners – will be treated leniently. Indeed, in a press release announcing the resolution Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim stated that “[t]he resolution of this matter through a non-prosecution agreement, along with forfeiture and restitution, reflects the extraordinary cooperation provided by Prime Partners to our investigation. It should serve as proof that cooperation has tangible benefits.” In the same vein, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg said that “[i]n our ongoing investigations, we will continue to draw on information from a variety of sources and to provide substantial credit to those around the globe who provide full and timely cooperation regarding the identity of U.S. tax cheats and the phony trusts and shell companies they seek to hide behind.” At the same time, the Justice Department will undoubtedly seek to punish – to the fullest extent possible under U.S. laws – financial institutions that have aided and abetted tax evasion by their U.S. customers and that fail to come forward voluntarily and cooperatively.

Finally, the Justice Department’s resolution with Prime Partners stands as yet another stern warning to taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts that they must take corrective action immediately or face harsh consequences.  In the press release, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg said “[t]he message is clear to those using foreign bank accounts to engage in schemes to evade U.S. taxes – you can no longer assume your ‘secret’ accounts will remain concealed, no matter where they are located. In our ongoing investigations, we will continue to draw on information from a variety of sources and to provide substantial credit to those around the globe who provide full and timely cooperation regarding the identity of U.S. tax cheats and the phony trusts and shell companies they seek to hide behind.” The Internal Revenue Service’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program remains available to taxpayers with undisclosed foreign assets, although the penalty for accountholders at Prime Partners will now increase from 27.5 percent to 50 percent.

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Connecticut’s Department of Revenue Services (DRS) has arrested and charged a New Haven restauranteur with various offenses for using sales tax suppression software. According to a press release announcing the charges, this is the first time the State of Connecticut has charged an individual for using “zapper” software, which it describes as “a type of commercial ‘phantom-ware’ used to create fraudulent point-of-sale records that deliberately understate taxes actually collected.” Zapper programs are used to delete some or all of a restaurant’s cash transactions and then reconcile the books of the business. The result is that the company’s books appear to be complete and accurate, but are in fact false because they reflect fewer sales than were actually made.

We previously wrote about the Justice Department’s efforts to crack down on the use of tax suppression software by charging a software salesman in Seattle who worked for a Canadian company that sold “point of sale” program that enabled restaurants to underreport their sales. Historically, state law enforcement agencies, not the Justice Department or Internal Revenue Service, have taken the lead in cracking down on the use of revenue suppression software. In early 2016, the Attorney General of Washington filed what he called the “first-of-its-kind” criminal case against a restauranteur, Yu-Ling Wong, for allegedly using sales suppression software to avoid paying nearly $400,000 in state sales tax. That case began as a routine audit by the Washington State Department of Revenue, which trains its auditors to detect the use of revenue suppression software. Auditors noted an unusual change in cash receipts, as compared to the restaurant’s historical cash receipts, determined that the restaurant’s point-of-sale system could not be trusted, and eventually uncovered the use of Zapper software.

Many states have passed laws outlawing the use of revenue suppression software, including Washington, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Utah, and West Virginia, and others are considering proposals to enact such laws. And the problem is not just confined to the United States. In a 2013 report entitled “Electronic Sales Suppression: A Threat to Tax Revenues,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that revenue suppression software “facilitate[s] tax evasion and result[s] in massive tax loss globally.”

In the Connecticut case, the defendant, Xiaoning Fan of New Haven, was arrested by DRS Special Agents from the Criminal Investigations Unit at her Lao Sze Chaun restaurant in Milford. Ms. Fan was charged with possession of tax suppression software, larceny in the 1st degree and willful delivery of a false return. She is charged with two Class D felonies subject to a fine of up to $100,000 and a sentence of one to five years or both, a Class B felony subject to a fine of up to $15,000 and a sentence of one to twenty years or both. She is also liable for all taxes, penalties, and interest due to the state as a result of the crime, forfeiture of all profits associated with the sale, and confiscation of the zapper device as contraband.

Said DRS Commissioner Kevin B. Sullivan, “[t]his arrest is a big breakthrough for DRS. We have been working with other states to develop our ability to detect and prosecute ‘zapper’ fraud. What began as a routine tax audit became a DRS arrest when our specially trained auditors successfully detected illegal use of sales suppression software from 2008 to 2016 that resulted in over $80,000 of state tax evasion plus an additional $60,000 in penalty and interest charges. At DRS, we continue to step up our game in the fight to stop tax fraud.”

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irsThree influential members of Congress have questioned the Internal Revenue Service’s strategy for addressing the tax treatment of digital or virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, and its efforts to uncover the identities of taxpayers who used such currencies through a “John Doe” summons to Coinbase, a virtual currency exchanger in San Francisco. In a letter dated May 17, 2017, Orrin G. Hatch, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; Kevin Brady, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; and Vern Buchanan, Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to express concern about the manner in which the IRS is undertaking to treat digital currencies for tax purposes.

In the letter, the three members noted that in March 2014, the IRS released guidance on the tax treatment of digital currencies for the first time. In IRS Notice 2014-21, which consisted of a series of “frequently asked questions” (and answers), the IRS announced that virtual currency would be treated, and taxed, as property. Among other things, this announcement meant that:

  • Wages paid to employees using virtual currency are taxable to the employee, must be reported by an employer on a Form W-2, and are subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes.
  • Payments using virtual currency made to independent contractors and other service providers are taxable and self-employment tax rules generally apply. Normally, payers must issue Form 1099.
  • The character of gain or loss from the sale or exchange of virtual currency depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer.
  • A payment made using virtual currency is subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property.

In Notice 2014-21, the IRS acknowledged that “there may be other questions regarding the tax consequences of virtual currency not addressed in this notice that warrant consideration,” and invited public comment.  Soon thereafter, the IRS stated informally that virtual currency was not reportable for purposes of the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR), but cautioned that this position could change in the future.

In June 2016, the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) urged the IRS to issue additional guidance on virtual currency transactions, noting ten areas left unaddressed by Notice 2014-21 and for which guidance was needed:

  • Acceptable valuation and documentation;
  • Expenses of obtaining virtual currency;
  • Challenges with specific identification for computing gains and losses;
  • General guidance regarding property transaction rules;
  • Nature of virtual currency held by a merchant;
  • Charitable contributions;
  • Virtual currency as a “commodity;”
  • Need for a de minimis election;
  • Retirement accounts, and
  • Foreign reporting requirements for virtual currency.

In September 2016, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued a report criticizing the IRS for failing to develop a “coordinated virtual currency strategy” during the two years following issuance of Notice 2014-21:

Although the IRS issued Notice 2014-21, Virtual Currency Guidance, and established the Virtual Currency Issue Team, there has been little evidence of coordination between the responsible functions to identify and address, on a program level, potential taxpayer noncompliance issues for transactions involving virtual currencies. None of the IRS operating divisions have developed any type of compliance initiatives or guidelines for conducting examinations or investigations specific to tax noncompliance related to virtual currencies. In addition, it does not appear that any of the actions already taken by the IRS to address virtual currency tax noncompliance were coordinated to ensure that the IRS maintains a strategic approach to the tax implications of virtual currencies.

TIGTA further pointed out that although the IRS solicited public comments to Notice 2014-21, the agency has taken no actions to address comments received.

In response, the IRS agreed with TIGTA’s recommendations and stated that it “plans to develop a virtual currency strategy including an assessment of whether changes to information reporting documents are warranted.” According to TIGTA, the IRS also agreed that “additional guidance would be helpful and plans to share the recommendation with the IRS’s Office of Chief Counsel for coordination with the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy.” To date, however, no such additional guidance from the IRS regarding virtual currency has been issued.

Approximately two months later, however, the IRS issued a “John Doe” summons to Coinbase, a U.S. company that serves as a digital currency wallet where merchants and consumers can conduct transactions using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and others. A “John Doe” summons is a relatively unknown information-gathering tool that is being used with increasing frequency by the IRS to obtain information and records about a class of unidentified taxpayers if the IRS has a reasonable belief that such taxpayers are engaged in conduct violating U.S. tax laws. Because the identities of the targeted taxpayers are unknown, the summons is denoted with a “John Doe” moniker. Expressly authorized by the Internal Revenue Code, a John Doe summons must first be approved by a federal judge before it can be served. The IRS sought to serve a summons on Coinbase because of its concern that the anonymous nature of virtual currencies like Bitcoin may allow users to engage in tax evasion and other illegal conduct:

Virtual currency, as generally defined, is a digital representation of value that functions in the same manner as a country’s traditional currency. There are nearly a thousand virtual currencies, but the most widely known and largest is bitcoin. Because transactions in virtual currencies can be difficult to trace and have an inherently pseudo-anonymous aspect, taxpayers may be using them to hide taxable income from the IRS. In the court’s order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley found that there is a reasonable basis for believing that virtual currency users may have failed to comply with federal tax laws.

In an affidavit submitted to the Court in support of its application for a John Doe summons, the IRS claimed that in 2015, only 802 taxpayers reported a Bitcoin transaction on Form 8949.

The “John Doe” summons directed to Coinbase requires that company to produce records identifying U.S. taxpayers who have used its services during the years 2013 and 2015. In response, both Coinbase and one of its customers have sought to quash the summons. In March 2017, the IRS filed a petition in federal court to enforce the summons against Coinbase. Subsequently several Coinbase customers have sought to intervene in the summons enforcement proceeding anonymously. To date, the Court has not ruled on these applications, and Coinbase has not produced any records in response to the summons.

In the Congressional letter to the IRS, the authors express concern with the Coinbase summons, pointing out that the summons is estimated to affect 500,000 active Coinbase customers and would result in the production of millions of pages of transaction records. The letter further points out that “90 percent of these customers engaged in less than $10,000 in cumulative, gross transactions during the entire period requested.” Under these circumstances, the three members question whether the IRS genuinely has a reasonable belief that Coinbase customers are engaging in tax evasion:

However, we strongly question whether the IRS has actually established a reasonable basis to support the mass production of records for half of a million people, the vast majority of whom appear to not be conducting the volume of transactions needed to report them to the IRS. Based on the information before us, this summons seems overly broad, extremely burdensome, and highly intrusive to a large population of individuals. The IRS’s actions in this case also set a dangerous precedent for companies facilitating virtual currency transactions that could be subject to a similar summons.

The letter concludes by demanding that the IRS respond, by June 7, 2017, to a broad set of questions about the agency’s strategy for addressing the tax treatment of digital currencies:

1.  Please describe the IRS’s current digital currency strategy and provide any existing policies and procedures.

a.  What efforts has the IRS made to conduct industry outreach or coordination on its digital currency strategy?

b.  What, if any, industry concerns have been raised and what actions is the IRS taking to address these?

c.  How does the John Doe summons issued to Coinbase fit into the larger IRS digital currency strategy?

2.  As mentioned earlier, to issue a John Doe summons, the IRS must first establish that it has a reasonable basis to believe that the individuals may fail or may have failed to comply with internal revenue law. What is the justification for the IRS’s position that all Coinbase customer records are needed for this timeframe?

a.  When seeking this summons, what provision(s) of the IRC did the IRS believe Coinbase customers not to be in compliance with?

b.  Did the IRS consider issuing a more narrowly tailored summons? If so, what impediments existed to the IRS issuing a more narrowly tailored summons?

3.  TIGTA made three recommendations in its 2016 report referenced above. What is the current status of the IRS’s implementation of each of these recommendations and what actions have been taken to address each one?

4.  How has or will the IRS assess and take into account the compliance burdens on start-up financial technology companies as well as digital currency users (especially those engaging in light to moderate transactional use) when developing and refining its digital currency strategy?

5.  Will the IRS consider a de minimis exemption or other action to remove practical obstacles to such moderate, transactional use of digital currencies?

This letter from Congress is the latest example of criticism of the IRS’s digital currency strategy (or lack thereof). As noted above, the issuance of Notice 2014-21 was helpful in providing initial guidance in this area, but it left unanswered many more questions than it answered, as evidenced by follow-up comments from the AICPA and TIGTA. And the IRS is encountering resistance in its efforts to enforce its John Doe summons to Coinbase. The Congressional letter only adds to the growing chorus calling for the IRS to clarify this area once and for all.

 

With less than two weeks until the April 18 deadline for filing individual federal income tax returns, the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service are issuing stern warnings to potential tax cheats. Today the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina and the Special Agent in Charge of the IRS Charlotte Field Office issued a joint press release entitled “Federal Prosecutors Warn Potential Tax Cheats: Tax Crimes Result In Criminal Prosecution, Lengthy Prison Sentences, And Fines.” Their press release announced recent tax fraud prosecutions and sentencings, and is intended to “deliver a powerful warning to those who are thinking about breaking the law by committing tax crimes.”

“As tax filing season reaches its peak, we are putting would-be tax cheats on notice: My office will prosecute those who try to cheat the tax system at the expense of honest taxpayers who file their returns on time and pay the taxes they owe. Our tax system is built on voluntary compliance and tax criminals who do not pay their fair share increase the tax burden on law-abiding taxpayers,” said U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose.

“The 2017 income tax filing season is soon coming to a close, however, special agents of the IRS – Criminal Investigation work year-round to combat criminal violations of the Internal Revenue Code and related financial crimes. Agents in the Charlotte Field Office have pursued, and will continue to pursue, those who prepare returns fraudulently, steal and misuse identities, and those who take extraordinary measures to conceal their income in an effort to evade their tax responsibility,” said Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Holloman, III. “To build faith in our nation’s tax system, honest taxpayers need to be reassured that everyone is paying their fair share and we will work vigorously to pursue those who do not.”

The press release proceeds to highlight recent successes in prosecuting tax evaders and those who file false tax returns:

Matthew Moretz, 31, of Taylorsville, N.C., pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return. From April 2010 to March 2011, Moretz collected unemployment income from the North Carolina Division of Employment. However, beginning in or about March 2010 and continuing through in or about 2013, Moretz was self-employed as the owner of MJM Recycling, a scrap metal business. From tax year 2010 through tax year 2013, Moretz earned additional personal income totaling approximately $529,622.44 that Moretz failed to report on his U.S. Individual Income Tax Returns Form 1040 filed with the IRS. As a result of the unreported taxable income, Moretz had additional tax due and owing of approximately $116,409.38 from 2010 to 2013. Moretz is currently awaiting sentencing.

Patrick Emanuel Sutherland, 48, of Charlotte, was convicted of filing false tax returns and obstructing a federal grand jury investigation. Court documents and trial evidence showed that, from at least 2007 to 2015, Sutherland was an actuary, and the owner and operator of numerous companies in the insurance and financial industries. Between 2007 and 2010, Sutherland engaged in an elaborate scheme to conceal a substantial amount of income, including filing false tax returns with the IRS which underreported business receipts and personal income of approximately $2 million in income received from an offshore bank account in Bermuda, as well as from domestic sources. Sutherland is currently awaiting sentencing.

Reuben T. DeHaan, 44, of Kings Mountain, N.C., was sentenced to 24 months in prison for tax evasion and possession of an unregistered firearm. DeHaan owned a holistic medicine business, which he operated out of his residence in Kings Mountain under the names Health Care Ministries International Inc. and Get Well Stay Well. During the years 2008 through 2014, DeHaan earned more than $2.7 million in gross receipts from his holistic medicine business, but failed to file income tax returns for those years and evaded approximately $678,000 in income taxes due and owing. DeHaan was also ordered to pay 567,665 in restitution to the IRS and $110,449 to the state of North Carolina.

Another area of focus for the Justice Department and IRS are unscrupulous return preparers and those who perpetrate stolen identity refund fraud:

Ramos, formerly of Lincolnton, N.C., was previously sentenced to 48 months in prison for her role in a false claims conspiracy. The conviction stemmed from Ramos’s role in a conspiracy to defraud the government by filing fraudulent tax returns seeking refunds totaling more than $5 million, by using stolen identity information of individuals in Puerto Rico. Ramos fled the United States and failed to report to federal prison after the sentencing. She is awaiting sentencing on charges of obstruction of justice and failure to report and faces additional jail time and fines.

Cara Michelle Banks, Carmichael Cornilus Hill, and Priscilla Lydia Turner conspired with Senita Dill and Ronald Jeremy Knowles, and others, to file false federal and state tax returns using stolen personal identifying information. From 2009 to 2012, this conspiracy defrauded the United States Treasury of over $3.5 million. Banks, Hill, Turner and others stole personal identifying information and then provided it to Dill to file the false returns in exchange for payment. Dill and Knowles used stolen personal information to file over 1,000 false tax returns. Court records show that Hill provided approximately 26 percent of the stolen identifications used to file the fraudulent returns. In 2016, Banks and Hill were sentenced to 70 months and 75 months in prison, respectively. In November 2016, Turner pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and is currently awaiting sentencing. Senita Dill was sentenced to 324 months and Knowles to 70 in prison for their roles in the conspiracy.

Finally, an area of recent intensity for the Justice Department and IRS is employment tax fraud:

Frank Alton Moody, II, 57, of Arden, the co-founder and former Chairman of the Board of CenterCede Services, Inc., a payroll services company, was ordered to serve 30 months in prison, two years in supervised release, and to pay $2,146,380.97 as restitution, for conspiring to steal over $2 million from client companies. Moody’s co-conspirators, Jerry Wayne Overcash and John Bernard Thigpen, were previously sentenced to 46 months and 21 months in prison, respectively. The three men used the more than $2 million they stole from client companies to fund their exorbitant salaries. Overcash and Thigpen were also ordered to jointly pay $1.3 million as restitution to the victim client companies.

The press release concludes with a reminder to taxpayers to exercise caution during tax season to protect themselves against a wide range of tax schemes ranging from identity theft to return preparer fraud. Illegal scams can lead to significant penalties and interest and possible criminal prosecution. IRS Criminal Investigation works closely with the Department of Justice to shutdown scams and to prosecute the criminals behind them. The IRS has issued its annual “Dirty Dozen” which lists common tax scams that taxpayers may encounter, particularly during filing season. Taxpayers are urged look out for, and to avoid, the following common schemes:

  • Phishing
  • Phone Scams
  • Identity Theft
  • Return Preparer Fraud
  • Fake Charities
  • Inflated Refund Claims
  • Excessive Claims for Business Credits
  • Falsely Padding Deductions on Returns
  • Falsifying Income To Claim Credits
  • Abusive Tax Shelters
  • Frivolous Tax Arguments
  • Offshore Tax Avoidance

As we have written previously, it is well-known that the IRS and Justice Department typically increase the frequency of their press releases announcing enforcement activity in the weeks leading up to the filing deadline. In fact, academic research confirms that these agencies issue a disproportionately large number of tax enforcement press releases as “Tax Day” approaches:

Every spring, the federal government appears to deliver an abundance of announcements that describe criminal convictions and civil injunctions involving taxpayers who have been accused of committing tax fraud. Commentators have occasionally suggested that the government announces a large number of tax enforcement actions in close proximity to a critical date in the tax compliance landscape: April 15, “Tax Day.” These claims previously were merely speculative, as they lacked any empirical support. This article fills the empirical void by seeking to answer a straightforward question: When does the government publicize tax enforcement? To conduct our study, we analyzed all 782 press releases issued by the U.S. Department of Justice Tax Division during the seven-year period of 2003 through 2009 in which the agency announced a civil or criminal tax enforcement action against a specific taxpayer identified by name. Our principal finding is that, during those years, the government issued a disproportionately large number of tax enforcement press releases during the weeks immediately prior to Tax Day compared to the rest of the year and that this difference is highly statistically significant. A convincing explanation for this finding is that government officials deliberately use tax enforcement publicity to influence individual taxpayers’ perceptions and knowledge of audit probability, tax penalties, and the government’s tax enforcement efficacy while taxpayers are preparing their annual individual tax returns.

Joshua D. Blank and Daniel Z. Levin, When Is Tax Enforcement Publicized?, 30 Virginia Tax Review 1 (2010).

As “Tax Day 2017” approaches, expect to see similar announcements intended to deter would-be tax cheats from filing false tax returns.

2000px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Department_of_Justice_svgIn December, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against John Yin, a software salesman who worked for a Canadian company that sells point of sale (POS) software programs that enabled restaurants to underreport their sales, thereby lowering their tax liability.[1] Commonly called “zapper” programs, these revenue suppression software (RSS) programs are used to delete some or all of a restaurant’s cash transactions and then reconcile the books of the business.

The result is that the company’s books appear to be complete and accurate, but are in fact false because they reflect fewer sales than were actually made. State authorities have been trying to combat the use of zappers by cash intensive businesses like restaurants for years, and the Yin case is significant because the government’s investigation revealed that the defendant marketed and sold zapper software throughout the Seattle area to multiple restaurants over the course of several years.

Yin pleaded guilty to a widespread scheme to defraud federal and state tax authorities, resulting in the avoidance of more than $3.4 million in taxes. This case is undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg, as charges against other defendants will almost certainly result from Yin’s guilty plea.

The Alleged Offenses

According to the publicly-filed charging document and guilty plea agreement, Yin worked as a salesman for Profitek, a British Columbia company selling POS systems for hospitality and retail industries, from at least 2009 through mid-2015. In addition to its Canadian headquarters, Profitek has offices in China and a growing dealership network across North America.

Profitek designed, marketed, sold, and supported revenue suppression software as an “add-on” to its Profitek point-of-sale software. The RSS functioned only with the Profitek POS software. POS software creates a database of transactions that is used to calculate a business’ tax obligations. RSS is used to modify a business’ POS database for the sole purpose of hiding cash skimming.

When executed, the RSS program deletes all or some of the business’s cash transactions, and then reconciles the books of the business. The result is business records that appear to be complete and accurate but, in fact, are false and fraudulent in that they show less than total income earned.

Yin acknowledged in his guilty plea agreement that he successfully sold the POS software, and assisted in the widespread distribution of the zapper software, to dozens of customers in and around Seattle over the course of several years. The zapper software could only be ordered from a supplier in China, so Yin would put his clients in touch with the Chinese company and facilitate their purchase of the software. Yin also serviced the zapper software once his clients purchased and installed it.

Yin further admitted that his clients’ use of zapper software allowed them to consistently and significantly underpay their various federal, state and local taxes, including business and occupation taxes, Social Security and Medicare taxes and federal income taxes.

The plea agreement states that eight restaurants in the Seattle area were audited by the Washington State Department of Revenue and found to be using Yin’s zapper software. The total amount of state sales and federal income taxes avoided by these establishments during the period 2010 through 2013 were determined as follows:

Restaurant 1 $218,447.75
Restaurant 2 $498,666.75
Restaurant 3 $302,222.25
Restaurant 4 $472,222.25
Restaurant 5 $565,952.75
Restaurant 6 $332,433.00
Restaurant 7 $145,319.75
Restaurant 8 $910,324.50

These amounts do not include unpaid Social Security and Medicare taxes. The grand total of unpaid taxes attributable to zapper software sold by Yin is $3,445,589.00.

Yin entered a guilty plea on Dec. 2, 2016, to two federal charges: (1) wire fraud; and (2) conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. The wire fraud charge is based upon Yin’s use of email to communicate with the Chinese supplier of the zapper software purchased by many of his clients. The conspiracy charge is based upon Yin’s efforts to facilitate the use of zapper software by his clients for purposes of underreporting taxable income required to be reported on federal income tax returns.

Based upon the agreed-upon tax loss of $3.4 million, at sentencing Yin is facing a potential sentence of 37 to 46 months in prison as calculated by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. As part of his guilty plea, Yin agreed to make full restitution, in the amount of $3,445,589, to the IRS and Washington State. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 24, 2017.

The publicly-filed court documents are silent as to whether Yin is cooperating with ongoing federal and state investigations of restaurants suspected of using zapper software. Given the widespread use of such software by Yin’s clients and the substantial jail sentence he is facing, it is reasonable to assume that he is cooperating in order to earn leniency at sentencing. As a result, charges against additional defendants are likely.

State Efforts to Combat Use of Zapper Software

Historically, state law enforcement agencies, not the U.S. Department of Justice or the Internal Revenue Service, have taken the lead in cracking down on the use of revenue suppression software. In early 2016, the attorney general of Washington state filed what he called a “first-of-its-kind” criminal case against a restauranteur, Yu-Ling Wong, for allegedly using sales suppression software to avoid paying nearly $400,000 in state sales tax.[2]

That case, which evidently spawned the federal prosecution of Yin, began as a routine audit by the Washington State Department of Revenue, which trains its auditors to detect the use of revenue suppression software. Auditors noted an unusual change in cash receipts, as compared to the restaurant’s historical cash receipts, determined that the restaurant’s point-of-sale system could not be trusted, and eventually uncovered the use of zapper software provided by Yin.

The case was thereafter referred for criminal prosecution, and state attorney general executed a search warrant at Yin’s residence. During a law enforcement interview conducted during execution of that search warrant, Yin admitted he sold the zapper software in approximately 2007 and trained a purchaser in how to use it.

Many states have passed laws outlawing the use of revenue suppression software, including Washington, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Utah and West Virginia, and others are considering proposals to enact such laws. And the problem is not just confined to the United States. In a 2013 report entitled “Electronic Sales Suppression: A Threat to Tax Revenues,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that revenue suppression software “facilitate[s] tax evasion and result[s] in massive tax loss globally.”

Increasing Federal Attention to Zapper Software?

The Yin case suggests that federal authorities may take a greater interest in prosecuting restaurants and other cash intensive businesses that make use of revenue suppression software. The investigation of Yin and his subsequent guilty plea have opened a window into what appears to be widespread and longtime use of zapper software by restaurants throughout the Seattle area, and additional charges are expected.

The IRS has trained revenue agents to look for evidence that zapper software may be used, and its “Cash Intensive Businesses Audit Techniques Guide” specifically instructs agents to focus on point-of-sale software when auditing restaurants and bars. In addition, increasing vigilance by state auditors of cash intensive businesses will likely spawn additional federal prosecutions just as occurred in the Yin investigation.

Reprinted with permission from Law360. (c) 2017 Portfolio Media. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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In December, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against John Yin, a software salesman who worked for a Canadian company that sells “point of sale” software programs that enabled restaurants to underreport their sales, thereby lowering their tax liability.[1] Commonly called “Zapper” programs, these “revenue suppression software” programs are used to delete some or all of a restaurant’s cash transactions and then reconcile the books of the business. The result is that the company’s books appear to be complete and accurate, but are in fact false because they reflect fewer sales than were actually made. State authorities have been trying to combat the use of “zappers” by cash intensive businesses like restaurants for years, and the Yin case is significant because the government’s investigation revealed that the defendant marketed and sold Zapper software throughout the Seattle area to multiple restaurants over the course of several years. Yin pleaded guilty to a widespread scheme to defraud federal and state tax authorities, resulting in the avoidance of more than $3.4 million in taxes. This case is undoubtedly only the “tip of the iceberg,” as charges against other defendants will almost certainly result from Yin’s guilty plea.

The Offense Conduct

According to the publicly-filed charging document and guilty plea agreement, Yin worked as a salesman for Profitek, a British Columbia company selling point of sale (POS) systems for hospitality and retail industries, from at least 2009 through mid-2015. In addition to its Canadian headquarters, Profitek has offices in China and a growing dealership network across North America. Profitek designed, marketed, sold, and supported revenue suppression software (RSS) as an “add-on” to its Profitek point-of-sale software. The RSS functioned only with the Profitek POS software.

Point-of-sale software creates a database of transactions that is used to calculate a business’ tax obligations. Revenue suppression software is used to modify a business’ POS database for the sole purpose of hiding cash skimming. When executed, the RSS program deletes all or some of the business’s cash transactions, and then reconciles the books of the business. The result is business records that appear to be complete and accurate but, in fact, are false and fraudulent in that they show less than total income earned.

Yin acknowledged in his guilty plea agreement that he successfully sold the POS software, and assisted in the widespread distribution of the Zapper software, to dozens of customers in and around Seattle over the course of several years. The Zapper software could only be ordered from a supplier in China, so Yin would put his clients in touch with the Chinese company and facilitate their purchase of the software. Yin also serviced the Zapper software once his clients purchased and installed it.

Yin further admitted that his clients’ use of Zapper software allowed them to consistently and significantly underpay their various federal, state, and local taxes, including business and occupation taxes, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and federal income taxes. The plea agreement states that eight restaurants in the Seattle area were audited by the Washington State Department of Revenue and found to be using Yin’s Zapper software. The total amount of state sales and federal income taxes avoided by these establishments during the period 2010 through 2013 were determined as follows:

Restaurant 1                $218,447.75

Restaurant 2                $498,666.75

Restaurant 3                $302,222.25

Restaurant 4                $472,222.25

Restaurant 5                $565,952.75

Restaurant 6                $332,433.00

Restaurant 7                $145,319.75

Restaurant 8                $910,324.50

These amounts do not include unpaid Social Security and Medicare taxes. The grand total of unpaid taxes attributable to Zapper software sold by Yin is $3,445,589.00.

Yin entered a guilty plea on December 2, 2016, to two federal charges: (1) wire fraud; and (2) conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. The wire fraud charge is based upon Yin’s use of email to communicate with the Chinese supplier of the Zapper software purchased by many of his clients. The conspiracy charge is based upon Yin’s efforts to facilitate the use of Zapper software by his clients for purposes of underreporting taxable income required to be reported on federal income tax returns. Based upon the agreed-upon tax loss of $3.4 million, at sentencing Yin is facing a potential sentence of 37 to 46 months in prison as calculated by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. As part of his guilty plea, Yin agreed to make full restitution, in the amount of $3,445,589, to the IRS and Washington State. Sentencing is scheduled for February 24, 2017.

The publicly-filed court documents are silent as to whether Yin is cooperating with ongoing federal and state investigations of restaurants suspected of using Zapper software. Given the widespread use of such software by Yin’s clients and the substantial jail sentence he is facing, it is reasonable to assume that he is cooperating in order to earn leniency at sentencing. As a result, charges against additional defendants are likely.

State Efforts to Combat Use of Zapper Software

Historically, state law enforcement agencies, not the Justice Department or Internal Revenue Service, have taken the lead in cracking down on the use of revenue suppression software. In early 2016, the Attorney General of Washington State filed what he called the “first-of-its-kind” criminal case against a restauranteur, Yu-Ling Wong, for allegedly using sales suppression software to avoid paying nearly $400,000 in state sales tax.[2] That case, which evidently spawned the federal prosecution of Yin, began as a routine audit by the Washington State Department of Revenue, which trains its auditors to detect the use of revenue suppression software. Auditors noted an unusual change in cash receipts, as compared to the restaurant’s historical cash receipts, determined that the restaurant’s point-of-sale system could not be trusted, and eventually uncovered the use of Zapper software provided by Yin. The case was thereafter referred for criminal prosecution, and the Washington Attorney General executed a search warrant at Yin’s residence. During a law enforcement interview conducted during execution of that search warrant, Yin admitted he sold the Zapper software in approximately 2007 and trained her how to use it.

Many states have passed laws outlawing the use of revenue suppression software, including Washington, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Utah, and West Virginia, and others are considering proposals to enact such laws. And the problem is not just confined to the United States. In a 2013 report entitled “Electronic Sales Suppression: A Threat to Tax Revenues,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that revenue suppression software “facilitate[s] tax evasion and result[s] in massive tax loss globally.”

Increasing Federal Attention to Zapper Software?

The Yin case suggests that federal authorities may take a greater interest in prosecuting restaurants and other cash intensive businesses that make use of revenue suppression software. The investigation of Yin and his subsequent guilty plea have opened a window into what appears to be widespread and longtime use of Zapper software by restaurants throughout the Seattle area, and additional charges are expected. The IRS has trained revenue agents to look for evidence that Zapper software may be used, and its “Cash Intensive Businesses Audit Techniques Guide” specifically instructs agents to focus on point-of-sale software when auditing restaurants and bars. In addition, increasing vigilance by state auditors of cash intensive businesses will likely spawn additional federal prosecutions just as occurred in the Yin investigation.

[1] See United States v. John Yin, No. CR16-314 RAJ (W.D. Wash.).

[2] See State of Washington v. Yu-Ling Wong, No. 16-1-00179-0 (King County Superior Court).