Tax evasion and tax fraud are federal crimes that involve the willful attempt to either evade the assessment or the payment of taxes. But at what point does the IRS pursue criminal charges for these actions? What consequences are included in the criminal charges? How does one prevent these charges from being brought upon them? Here’s what you need to know about how and when the IRS pursues criminal charges against a taxpayer.
What causes the IRS to consider pursuing criminal charges?
The IRS typically does not pursue criminal charges unless you exhibit a pattern of intentionally breaking tax laws. This can include non-filing, filing fraudulent returns, falsifying information on your return, not paying taxes, and more. The IRS statute of limitations could trigger charges to be filed. Currently, the IRS has six years from the return filing date to pursue criminal charges that related to failing to file and underreporting income. Finally, if you are ever audited, do not attempt to falsify records or omit information. This is a sure way to be implicated in a tax crime.
If the IRS decides to open a case against you, they will refer it to the Department of Justice for prosecution. In order for the IRS to be successful in convicting someone for tax evasion, they must prove without reasonable doubt that the accused taxpayer (or nonpayer) acted in a deliberate and willful manner to avoid paying their taxes.
What consequences are included in the criminal charges?
While these charges are not as common as others, the penalties are some of the harshest and can have life-altering consequences. Being guilty of tax fraud can result in heavy fines, interest, penalties, and even jail time. The average jail sentence for tax evasion can vary between three to five years depending on the severity of the case. In addition, you can be fined up to $100,000, or up to $500,000 for corporations. If you are found guilty of filing false tax returns, you can be fined up to $100,000 and up to three years in prison. Even misdemeanors, like failing to file, have harsh consequences, including up to $25,000 for each year of non-filing, and up to one year in jail.
On the more extreme side, willfully hiding offshore bank accounts can result in up to $500,000 in fees and up to ten years in jail. Even if the action was not willful it will result in penalties.
How do I prevent IRS criminal charges?
The answer is simple: always remain tax compliant. Avoid committing tax evasion or tax fraud, and always file and pay your taxes. If you’re unable to pay, contact the IRS immediately to see what options you have. If you find yourself stuck in a tax dispute with the IRS, consider hiring an attorney to fix the issue while it’s at the civil level to avoid the charge becoming criminal.
Remember, you are guilty even if you are only helping someone else evade their taxes, according to Section 7201 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. In any case, working with the IRS can help avoid criminal charges being filed against you. Optima Tax Relief is the nation’s leading tax resolution firm with over a decade of experience helping taxpayers with tough tax situations.
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Statistically, your chances of being charged with criminal tax fraud or tax evasion by the IRS are minimal. The IRS initiates criminal investigations against fewer than 2% of all American taxpayers. Of that number, only about 20% face criminal tax charges or fines.
Related Article: The IRS Criminal Investigation Process
Unofficially, the minimum amount of unpaid taxes required to trigger an IRS criminal investigation is $70,000. And since the majority of Americans don’t even earn that much money, it’s easy to see why ordinary taxpayers need never worry about facing tax evasion or tax fraud charges.
While honest mistakes or even negligence generally won’t trigger a tax investigation, perpetrating fraud very well might. IRS agents are trained to recognize signs of criminal tax fraud and evasion. Exhibiting behaviors the IRS calls “affirmative acts” could eventually result in that fateful knock on the door from the IRS.
Negligence versus Tax Fraud
Back in the day, it seemed like the IRS was lying in wait, prepared to strike unsuspecting taxpayers at the slightest sign of tax error. These days the IRS is more tolerant of mistakes made by honest taxpayers.
When the circumstances are not clear cut, the IRS frequently errs on the side of giving the taxpayer the benefit of the doubt. Miscalculating the amount of your Earned Income Tax Credit is a mistake that could cost you a significant sum of money, but it isn’t usually considered to be tax fraud. Artificially concealing $800,000 of income by keeping two sets of books? Tax fraud. (Nolo)
Evidence of Tax Fraud
Four so-called elements of tax fraud are recognized by the IRS: deception, misrepresenting material facts, submitting false or deliberately altered documents and failing to submit critical documents, such as tax returns. Several elements of fraud must occur together to trigger IRS tax fraud charges. But a single element that occurs in an especially blatant fashion may generate IRS tax fraud charges.
For instance, failure to submit a tax return for a single year is not usually considered to be an element of tax fraud. On the other hand, unless your income is extremely low, failing to file any tax returns ever could very well cause the IRS to initiate a criminal investigation against you.
Badges of Tax Fraud
The list below, taken from the IRS.gov website, represents several “badges of fraud” the IRS looks for when determining whether to file criminal charges.
Badges of tax fraud fall into four general categories: improper reporting of income, unjustified deductions or tax credits, inadequate record keeping and outright illegal behavior. As with elements of fraud, IRS agents are inclined to give taxpayers the benefit of the doubt. They’ll impose penalties for taxpayers in arrears rather than bringing criminal charges against them.
- Understatement or omission of substantial sums of money
- Fictitious deductions
- Maintaining “shadow” sets of accounting records
- Deliberate destruction of records
- Evidence of consistent underreporting of income
- Obviously nonsensical explanations for behavior
- Refusing to cooperate with an auditor or examiner·
- Deliberately concealing assets, as in overseas tax shelters
- Illegal activities
- Dealing exclusively in cash
- Maintaining obviously inadequate records
- Indicators of Fraud
The IRS categorizes indicators of tax fraud into six broad categories: income, expenses and deductions, books and records, income allocation, methods of concealment and taxpayer conduct.
Just as with elements of tax fraud and badges of tax fraud, the difference between negligence and criminal conduct is often a matter of extent.
Indicators of fraud usually include an element of deliberate conduct as well. An extensive list of actions that constitute indicators of fraud are available on the IRS website, but the examples below should provide a general idea of how the IRS views indicators of fraud.
Forgetting to include income from a W-2 form is not considered an indicator of income fraud. Insisting on being paid cash wages for a job and refusing to list any income from that job on your federal income tax return would be considered to be an indicator of income fraud.
Miscalculating the percentage of business versus personal use for your computer is not considered an indicator of fraud for expenses and deductions. Attempting to deduct the entire cost of your vacation to the Bahamas because you answered a single work-related email from your hotel room WOULD be.
Don’t Be Evasive
In general, if you suspect that a particular type of conduct is disallowed by the IRS, you shouldn’t do it. If you go ahead and do it anyway, you run the risk of being cited for tax evasion or tax fraud. And if you do receive that dreaded knock on the door from the IRS, you should not be surprised.
Additional Tax Tips:What to do during an IRS Audit
How to survive an IRS tax audit
Most of the woes associated with the IRS involve money. If you are audited, the most probable outcome is that you will owe more money to the IRS. In the worst case scenarios, an audit results in your owing a lot more money. But you almost never face criminal charges.
An IRS criminal investigation is an entirely different ball of wax. The IRS pursues about 3,000 prosecutions each year for tax fraud and tax evasion. If the IRS launches a criminal investigation against you, you not only face a potentially substantial tax bill, but also possible jail time. One of your first moves should be to obtain the services of a skilled, experienced attorney who specializes in tax law.
The Knock at the Door
Your first encounter with the criminal investigation unit of the IRS may involve a knock on your door, followed by an intimidating encounter with two or more agents dressed much like K and J from the Men in Black movies. By the time this encounter takes place, the IRS has completed several steps of its investigation process and is convinced that the case against you is solid. Your best move under these circumstances is to say absolutely nothing.
Areas of Potential Criminal Prosecution
The IRS website lists the following areas of possible criminal prosecution. Some areas of criminal prosecution such as abusive tax schemes and nonfiler enforcement are more likely to apply to individuals. Others, such as money laundering and employment tax evasion, are more likely to be committed by corporations and criminal operations.
- Abusive Return Preparers
- Abusive Tax Schemes
- Bankruptcy Fraud
- Corporate Fraud
- Employment Tax Evasion
- Financial Institution Fraud
- Gaming Related Fraud
- General Tax Fraud
- Healthcare Fraud
- Insurance Fraud
- Money Laundering
- Mortgage and Real Estate Fraud
- Narcotics Related Financial Fraud
- Nonfiler Enforcement
- Public Corruption
- Questionable Tax Refunds
How Criminal Investigations Are Initiated
Those stories you read about neighbors ratting each other out to the IRS? That actually does happen. The IRS is happy to accept tips about possible tax fraud or tax evasion from family members and associates. A revenue agent or revenue collection officer may also initiate a criminal tax investigation if something about your return seems fishy. A U.S. Attorney or even your local law enforcement department may also provide tips to the IRS about possible fraudulent or criminal tax activity. Social media is also another resource.
Of course, the IRS isn’t supposed to go off half-cocked based on an accusation made by someone with a long-standing grudge. Instead, any tips or information is subject to what the IRS calls a primary investigation. The agent makes an initial judgment on whether to proceed with further investigation. If the decision is in favor of pursing criminal charges, the tax agent’s supervisor has the opportunity to sign off on the investigation or stop it in its tracks. If the supervisor gives the go-ahead, then the case is brought to the special agent in charge – the head of the office. That person makes the determination of whether to go ahead with a “subject criminal investigation” based on one or more of the categories listed above.
Once the IRS has obtained the go-ahead, the actual criminal investigation proceeds much like you think it would. The IRS gathers documents and affidavits from third parties, including your family, friends and professional associates to support its case. Other forms of investigation include search warrants, subpoenas of bank records and other financial data and covert surveillance.
Recommendations for Prosecution
After the investigation phase of the process is complete, the IRS special agent and his or her supervisor review the evidence that has been gathered. A determination is made whether to “discontinue” the case or proceed with prosecution. If the decision is made to prosecute, the special agent prepares a report which is reviewed by each of the following four IRS officers, in order:
- The supervisory special agent, aka the front line supervisor for the special agent
- Centralized Case Review – a criminal investigation review team
- The Criminal Investigation (CI) assistant special agent in charge
- The CI special agent in charge
If the CI special agent in charge gives the go-ahead to prosecute, the recommendation is forwarded to either of two final levels of review. Just as with any of the earlier stages of investigation, the IRS may decide that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with an actual prosecution. But once an investigation clears one of the two stages listed below, you are destined to receive that ominous knock on your door.
- The Department of Justice, Tax Division (for tax investigations)
- The United States Attorney (for all other criminal financial investigations)
Guilty or Not Guilty
You might have gathered by now that the IRS is meticulous about pursuing criminal cases against alleged tax cheats, and you would be right. But that does not mean that mistakes never happen or that actual prosecution is inevitable. You have the right to seek a conference with IRS agents at each stage of the process — if you are actually aware that the IRS is pursuing prosecution against you. You also have the right to request dismissal of the case either before or after a grand jury indictment, or to appeal a conviction.
If the IRS Has You in Its Sights
If you know that the IRS will find tax fraud or tax evasion, your best bet is to come clean. If you do so before a prosecution is underway, you can often avoid the criminal process altogether. The IRS allows taxpayers to make voluntary disclosures of unreported income or other tax obligations. The procedures vary according to whether your unlawful tax conduct involves domestic or international maneuvers. Your attorney can provide the best advice on whether – and how to make a voluntary disclosure.
Additional Tax Topics:
IRS Penalty and Interest Rates
What to do during an IRS Audit