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Facing the audit
5 Tips: Don't give away your secret, prepare your case, more...
April 15, 2005: 4:05 PM EDT
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist
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CNN's Gerri Willis shares five tips on how to face a tax audit.
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Tax season is drawing to a close -- and if you're like most of us, at some point you'll have a taxpayer's worst nightmare: The audit.

And, here's the bad news: While audits aren't routine, more of them are being done every year. That's because Uncle Sam has hired hundreds of more agents to track down tax cheats. One million individual returns were audited last year, up 19 percent since 2003.

And the IRS is zeroing in on the wealthy, increasing its audits on individuals making $100,000 or more a year by 40 percent. What should you do if you get a nasty letter from them? Here are today's five tips.

1. Don't give away your secrets.

Mark Albaum, a Manhattan certified public accountant, says you may well find out you're being audited by telephone, not letter. And, you probably won't be told you're being audited, more likely the agent will say either you're being "examined" or you need to "verify items reported in your return."

Albaum says don't take this as an opportunity to talk about your filing off the top of your head. After all, the agent may have your actual return in front of him. Direct the IRS rep to your accountant or tell them you will get back to them with the information they need.

2. Get professional help.

There's no better reason to hire a tax professional than getting audited. Believe me, this can be an expensive situation: in fiscal 2004 alone, the IRS brought in a record $43.1 billion in enforcement revenue -- they aren't messing around. So hire someone to help you deal.

Enrolled agents are an excellent resource for help in this field; many have already worked for the IRS or are trained to represent taxpayers before all administrative levels of the IRS.

Check out the National Association of Enrolled Agents ( for one near you. You could also work with a CPA, for a list of those, check out the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Web site (

However, you should know that every IRS letter sent to taxpayers is NOT necessarily an audit. In fact, they could be contacting you to straighten out simple errors on your return, like a transposed Social Security number, says Eric Smith, an IRS spokesman. But if your little mistake caused you to underpay your taxes, get ready to pay a penalty and fees.

3. Prepare your case.

Gather together your documents to present your case. That means getting all of your original receipts, credit card statements and cancelled checks (or copies) that prove your case. You may be able to handle the issue by mail, if it's fairly straightforward. If not, you'll probably appear in front of an auditor at an IRS office. Worst-case scenario, the agent comes to your business where they will have the option of sorting through your files for information.

4. Fight or just settle.

If the error or oversight is yours, you're best off settling quickly. Albaum says that agents are judged by their superiors by how many audits they process, not just how much money they recover in an audit.

The settlement process works like this: your auditor proposes an adjustment to your return and you have to pay it. If you want to fight, check out Publication 556, which will guide you through the appeals process. Smith says most appeals are settled without going to court.

5. Don't pay with your credit card.

If you do get tapped with fees and penalties or even if you just owe the IRS money this year, think twice before putting the bill on a credit card. That's because your credit card operator will charge you a convenience fee. But the convenience is really to the credit card issuer - they get 2.49 percent of your tab.

Wondering why? Well, convenience fees are due on all credit card transactions, but when you do your spending with a retailer, they end up picking up the tab. Unfortunately, the IRS won't do you the same favor. Instead of using a credit card, you're better off setting up a payment schedule for your bill. You can then make those installment payments by check or even have them debited from your account directly.

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to  Top of page


Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
Auditing and Reporting
Accounting and Audits
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