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The ‘Dirty Dozen’ tax scams for 2012

Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 1:58 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON, D.C. –– The Internal Revenue Service has issued its annual “Dirty Dozen” ranking of tax scams, reminding taxpayers to use caution during tax season to protect themselves against a wide range of schemes ranging from identity theft to return preparer fraud.

The Dirty Dozen listing, compiled by the IRS each year, lists a variety of common scams taxpayers can encounter at any point during the year. But many of these schemes peak during filing season as people prepare their tax returns.

Illegal scams can lead to significant penalties and interest and possible criminal prosecution. The IRS Criminal Investigation Division works closely with the Department of Justice to shutdown scams and prosecute the criminals behind them.

The following is the Dirty Dozen tax scams for 2012:

• Identity Theft: In response to growing identity theft concerns, the IRS has embarked on a comprehensive strategy that is focused on preventing, detecting and resolving identity theft cases as soon as possible. In addition to the law-enforcement crackdown, the IRS has stepped up its internal reviews to spot false tax returns before tax refunds are issued as well as working to help victims of the identity theft refund schemes.

The IRS is increasingly seeing identity thieves looking for ways to use a legitimate taxpayer’s identity and personal information to file a tax return and claim a fraudulent refund.

• Phishing: Phishing is a scam typically carried out with the help of unsolicited email or a fake website that poses as a legitimate site to lure in potential victims and prompt them to provide valuable personal and financial information. Armed with this information, a criminal can commit identity theft or financial theft.

If you receive an unsolicited email that appears to be from either the IRS or an organization closely linked to the IRS, such as the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), report it by sending it to phishing@irs.gov.

• Return Preparer Fraud: About 60 percent of taxpayers will use tax professionals this year to prepare and file their tax returns. Most return preparers provide honest service to their clients. But as in any other business, there are also some who prey on unsuspecting taxpayers.

Questionable return preparers have been known to skim off their clients’ refunds, charge inflated fees for return preparation services and attract new clients by promising guaranteed or inflated refunds. 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 many others.

In 2012, every paid preparer needs to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) and enter it on the returns he or she prepares.

• Hiding Income Offshore: Over the years, numerous individuals have been identified as evading U.S. taxes by hiding income in offshore banks, brokerage accounts or nominee entities, using debit cards, credit cards or wire transfers to access the funds. Others have employed foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, private annuities or insurance plans for the same purpose. While there are legitimate reasons for maintaining financial accounts abroad, there are reporting requirements that need to be fulfilled.

• “Free Money” from the IRS and Tax Scams Involving Social Security: Flyers and advertisements for free money from the IRS, suggesting that the taxpayer can file a tax return with little or no documentation, have been appearing in community churches around the country. These schemes are also often spread by word of mouth as unsuspecting and well-intentioned people tell their friends and relatives.

Scammers prey on low income individuals and the elderly. They build false hopes and charge people good money for bad advice.

• False/Inflated Income and Expenses: Including income that was never earned, either as wages or as self-employment income in order to maximize refundable credits, is another popular scam. Claiming income you did not earn or expenses you did not pay in order to secure larger refundable credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit could have serious repercussions. 

• False Form 1099 Refund Claims: In this ongoing scam, the perpetrator files a fake information return, such as a Form 1099 Original Issue Discount (OID), to justify a false refund claim on a corresponding tax return. In some cases, individuals have made refund claims based on the bogus theory that the federal government maintains secret accounts for U.S. citizens and that taxpayers can gain access to the accounts by issuing 1099-OID forms to the IRS.

• Frivolous Arguments: Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying the taxes they owe. 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.

• Falsely Claiming Zero Wages: Filing a phony information return is an illegal way to lower the amount of taxes an individual owes. 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.

• Abuse of Charitable Organizations and Deductions: IRS examiners continue to uncover the intentional abuse of 501(c)(3) organizations, including arrangements that improperly shield income or assets from taxation and attempts by donors to maintain control over donated assets or the income from donated property. The IRS is investigating schemes that involve the donation of non-cash assets –– including situations in which several organizations claim the full value 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.

• Disguised Corporate Ownership: Third parties are improperly used to request employer identification numbers and form corporations that obscure the true ownership of the business. These entities can be used to underreport income, claim fictitious deductions, avoid filing tax returns, participate in listed transactions and facilitate money laundering, and financial crimes.

• Misuse of Trusts: For years, unscrupulous promoters have urged taxpayers to transfer assets into trusts. While there are legitimate 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 of avoiding income tax liability and hiding assets from creditors, including the IRS.

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