IRS: Beware of these 'dirty dozen' tax scams

By Blake Ellis, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As the tax deadline draws near, the Internal Revenue Service wants you to beware of fraudulent tax preparers, hidden offshore bank accounts and offers that seem too good to be true.

In its "dirty dozen" list, released Tuesday, the IRS urged taxpayers to avoid falling prey to -- or carrying out -- a number of common tax schemes that will result in copious fines or put an offender in prison for years.

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"Taxpayers should be wary of anyone peddling scams that seem too good to be true," said IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman. "The IRS fights fraud by pursuing taxpayers who hide income abroad and by ensuring taxpayers get competent, ethical service from qualified professionals at home in the U.S."

Among the scams to watch out for this year are preparers who offer refunds that don't exist, promoters who encourage you to argue with the IRS about taxes you owe, and IRS impersonators who may even use Twitter to obtain your personal information.

The IRS will also be keeping a close eye on misbehaving tax filers, so think twice before filing a phony salary, lying about charitable donations or trying to claim a tax credit for the gas costs you incurred during that road trip you took last year.

Hiring a sketchy preparer: It's easy for an accountant or tax preparer to take advantage of you, especially if you're unfamiliar with the tax code or paperwork involved with filing a return.

There are many preparers out there who -- to make an extra buck -- will skim a portion of a client's refunds, charge more than they should for services and lure taxpayers to their offices by promising unattainable refunds.

It's up to the taxpayer to be careful when selecting a preparer, but the IRS is also taking steps to help decrease the chances that a taxpayer will end up receiving "help" from a fraud.

In future filing seasons, all paid preparers will be required to register with the IRS in order to receive a preparer tax identification number. Preparers must also take competency tests and participate in continuing professional education, unless they are attorneys, certified public accountants or enrolled agents.

Hiding your money offshore: The IRS is cracking down on hidden offshore accounts, and as part of its enforcement, the agency is targeting offenders and seeking out anyone else who helped to enable the scheme.

If you have an offshore bank account, brokerage account, credit card or even an offshore insurance plan, the IRS urges you to come forward now and admit to your crime voluntarily in order to limit the possibility of criminal prosecution.

Phishing for personal information: Be careful before replying to that e-mail from the IRS notifying you of the thousand dollar refund you're eligible for this year.

"IRS impersonation schemes flourish during the filing season," the agency said. "Criminals use the information they get to steal the victim's identity, access bank accounts, run up credit card charges or apply for loans in the victim's name."

These scams can come in the form of e-mails, phone calls, faxes or even tweets. If you receive an e-mail from someone claiming to be from the IRS, don't open any attachments or click on links included in the e-mail. Instead, forward the message to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

Filing false or misleading forms: Scam artists are claiming refunds they don't deserve by filing "false or misleading" returns, said the IRS.

Taxpayers are fabricating information returns and claiming made-up withholding credits in an attempt to make a little extra money from the IRS by way of a tax refund.

Some taxpayers carry out this scheme because they are under the belief that the federal government holds secret accounts for each of its citizens, said the IRS. These individuals believe that the funds in these hidden accounts can be accessed simply by issuing a Form 1099-Original Issue Discount, which is a phony information return.

Overvaluing your charitable donations: While giving to charity is a noble act, don't reverse it by lying about the amount you donated.

It can be tempting to overvalue items you give away when reporting them on your return -- especially for non-cash donations such as furniture or artwork -- but the IRS is keeping an eye out for suspiciously high-valued donations this year.

Arguing with the IRS: Have a bone to pick with the IRS? Be careful.

Taxpayers are being convinced by scam artists to argue with the IRS in order to get back some of the taxes they owe to the agency.

"Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage people to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying the taxes they owe," the IRS said. "While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law or IRS guidance."

The agency has a list of "frivolous" legal positions that have been "thrown out of court" and cannot be used against the IRS, so pick your fights carefully this tax season.

Fishy retirement plans: The IRS is on the hunt for taxpayers who abuse their retirement plan arrangements, including individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

Taxpayers who enter transactions that allow them to exceed the contribution limit of an IRA are wanted by the IRS, as are those people who fail to properly report early distributions.

Claiming gas costs: Trying to claim the money you spend on your hour-long commute to work each day? This could cost you a $5,000 fine from the IRS.

While taxpayers such as farmers who use fuel off highways as a means of carrying on their trade or business may qualify for the fuel tax credit, you can only claim the credit if your use of fuel meets specific IRS requirements.

Disguising your company: It's time to fess up to that business you own. The IRS is currently working with state authorities to identify corporations and other entities that disguise the ownership of a business.

These entities are often disguised through using a third party to request an employer identification number, and the businesses or financial services can be used for the underreporting of income, fictitious deductions, money laundering, financial crimes and even terrorist financing.

Giving yourself a pay cut: In an attempt to lower the amount of taxes owed, some taxpayers are filing phony wage-related information returns instead of the required returns.

"Taxpayers should resist any temptation to participate in any of the variations of this scheme," said the IRS, adding that false filings could result in a $5,000 fine.

Abusing trusts: An increasing number of people are misusing private annuity trusts and foreign trusts to transfer income and deduct personal expenses.

"Some promoted transactions promise reduction of income subject to tax, deductions for personal expenses and reduced estate or gift taxes," said the IRS. "Such trusts rarely deliver the tax benefits promised and are used primarily as a means to avoid income tax liability and to hide assets from creditors, including the IRS."

Inflating your withholding credit: You could be fined $5,000 this year if you exaggerate your withholding when reporting nontaxable Social Security benefits, which would result in your falsely reporting zero income to the IRS.

Tell the IRS: If you notice anything fishy, report suspected tax fraud to the IRS using Form 3949-A. To top of page

 
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