Opinion

David Cay Johnston

Abusing a tax loophole meant to aid the poor

David Cay Johnston
Apr 26, 2012 21:00 UTC

Each year the Internal Revenue Service receives tax returns that show more income than was actually earned, in some cases twice the actual earnings.

That seems bizarre at first blush. After all, why would anyone tell the tax man they made more than they did?

The answer is that Congress has created an incentive for the poorest of the working poor to report more than their actual incomes. Doing so can be worth more than $3,000 to impoverished working parents under a form of negative income tax known as the Earned Income Tax Credit that sends government money to the working poor.

But it is not the working poor themselves who make up phony numbers. The problem is with unscrupulous income tax preparers, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, Nina E. Olson, and others who work with the poor tell me.

Ginning up nonexistent income lets dishonest tax preparers charge larger fees and helps attract new clients as word spreads of their success at getting big refunds.

Taxed by the boss

David Cay Johnston
Apr 12, 2012 11:48 UTC

Across the United States more than 2,700 companies are collecting state income taxes from hundreds of thousands of workers – and are keeping the money with the states’ approval, says an eye-opening report published on Thursday.

The report from Good Jobs First, a nonprofit taxpayer watchdog organization funded by Ford, Surdna and other major foundations, identifies 16 states that let companies divert some or all of the state income taxes deducted from workers’ paychecks. None of the states requires notifying the workers, whose withholdings are treated as taxes they paid.

General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and AMC Theatres enjoy deals to keep state taxes deducted from their workers’ paychecks, the report shows. Foreign companies also enjoy such arrangements, including Electrolux, Nissan, Toyota and a host of Canadian, Japanese and European banks, Good Jobs First says.

Eliminating 100 million tax returns

David Cay Johnston
Apr 9, 2012 12:19 UTC

On March 28, the U.S. Justice Department sought to close a nationwide chain of income tax preparation shops it accuses of fraud. The action underscores the potential for abusive business practices that taxpayers face because Congress has failed to embrace technology that would eliminate most tax returns.

The Justice Department wants a federal judge to shut down Instant Tax Service, whose sole owner is Fesum Ogbazion of Dayton, Ohio, saying he is responsible for “extensive and pervasive tax fraud.” It also sued four of his 276 franchisees. The company has not responded to the lawsuit.

Congress could easily eliminate fraud by abusive tax preparers, as is alleged in the Ogbazion case, and save taxpayers billions of dollars annually, by simply ending mandatory filing of tax returns for most taxpayers.

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