Every year, the IRS compiles a list of common scams that taxpayers may encounter – its so-called “Dirty Dozen.”
Today, the Service wrapped up the annual Dirty Dozen list of tax scams for 2023 with a reminder for taxpayers, businesses and tax professionals to watch out for these schemes throughout the year, not just during tax season.
To help folks with identifying, and staying away from, these scams, the IRS has provided an overview recapping this year’s Dirty Dozen scams.[i]
Some items on this year’s list are new while others made a “return visit.” Although the list is not a legal document or a formal listing of agency enforcement priorities, it is intended to alert taxpayers and the tax professional community about various scams and schemes.
Without further ado, I give you the 2023 Dirty Dozen summary:
Employee Retention Credit claims
Taxpayers should be aware of aggressive pitches from scammers who promote large refunds related to the Employee Retention Credit (ERC). The warning follows blatant attempts by promoters to con ineligible people to claim the credit. The IRS highlighted these schemes from promoters who have been blasting ads on radio and the internet touting refunds involving Employee Retention Credits. These promotions can be based on inaccurate information related to eligibility for and computation of the credit. Additionally, some of these advertisements exist solely to collect the taxpayer’s personally identifiable information in exchange for false promises. The scammers then use the information to conduct identity theft.
Phishing and smishing
Taxpayers and tax professionals should be alert to fake communications from those posing as legitimate organizations in the tax and financial community, including the IRS and the states. These messages arrive in the form of an unsolicited text (smishing) or email (phishing) to lure unsuspecting victims to provide valuable personal and financial information that can lead to identity theft. The IRS initiates most contacts through regular mail and will never initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text or social media regarding a bill or tax refund.
Online account help from third-party scammers
Swindlers pose as a “helpful” third party and offer to help create a taxpayer’s IRS Online Account at IRS.gov. In reality, no help is needed. The online account provides taxpayers with valuable tax information. But third parties making these offers will try to steal a taxpayer’s personal information this way. Taxpayers can and should establish their own online account through IRS.gov.
False Fuel Tax Credit claims
The fuel tax credit is meant for off-highway business and farming use and, as such, is not available to most taxpayers. However, unscrupulous tax return preparers and promoters are enticing taxpayers to inflate their refunds by erroneously claiming the credit. The IRS has seen an increase in the promotion of filing certain refundable credits using Form 4136, Credit for Federal Tax Paid on Fuels.
Bogus charities are a perennial problem that gets bigger whenever a crisis or natural disaster strikes. Scammers set up these fake organizations to take advantage of the public’s generosity. They seek money and personal information, which can be used to further exploit victims through identity theft. Taxpayers who give money or goods to a charity might be able to claim a deduction on their federal tax return if they itemize deductions, but charitable donations only count if they go to a qualified tax-exempt organization recognized by the IRS.
Unscrupulous tax return preparers
Most tax preparers provide outstanding and professional service. However, people should be careful of shady tax professionals and watch for common warning signs, including charging a fee based on the size of the refund. A major red flag or bad sign is when the tax preparer is unwilling to sign the dotted line. Avoid these “ghost” preparers, who will prepare a tax return but refuse to sign or include their IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) as required by law. Taxpayers should never sign a blank or incomplete return.
Social media: Fraudulent form filing and bad advice
Social media can circulate inaccurate or misleading tax information, and the IRS has recently seen several examples. These can involve common tax documents like Form W-2 or more obscure ones like Form 8944. While Form 8944 is real, it is intended for a very limited, specialized group. Both schemes encourage people to submit false, inaccurate information in hopes of getting a refund. Taxpayers should always remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Spearphishing and cybersecurity for tax professionals
Phishing is a term given to emails or text messages designed to get users to provide personal information. Spearphishing is a tailored phishing attempt to a specific organization or business. The IRS is warning tax professionals about spearphishing because there is greater potential for harm if the tax preparer has a data breach. A successful spearphishing attack can ultimately steal client data and the tax preparer’s identity, allowing the thief to file fraudulent returns.
Offer in Compromise mills
Offers in Compromise are an important program to help people who can’t pay to settle their federal tax debts. But “mills” can aggressively promote Offers in Compromise in misleading ways to people who clearly don’t meet the qualifications, frequently costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. A taxpayer can check their eligibility for free using the IRS Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier tool.
Schemes aimed at high-income filers
- Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT): Charitable Remainder Trusts are irrevocable trusts that let individuals donate assets to charity and draw annual income for life or a specific period. Unfortunately, these trusts are sometimes misused by promoters, advisors and taxpayers to try to eliminate ordinary income and/or capital gain on the sale of the property.
- Monetized Installment Sales: In these potentially abusive transactions, promoters find taxpayers seeking to defer the recognition of gain upon the sale of appreciated property. They facilitate a purported monetized installment sale for the taxpayer in exchange for a fee.
Bogus tax avoidance strategies
- Micro-captive insurance arrangements: A micro-captive is an insurance company whose owners elect to be taxed on the captive’s investment income only. Abusive micro-captives involve schemes that lack many of the attributes of legitimate insurance. These structures often include implausible risks, failure to match genuine business needs and, in many cases, unnecessary duplication of the taxpayer’s commercial coverages.
- Syndicated conservation easements: A conservation easement is a restriction on the use of real property. Generally, taxpayers may claim a charitable contribution deduction for the fair market value of a conservation easement transferred to a charity if the transfer meets the requirements of Internal Revenue Code 170. In abusive arrangements, which generate high fees for promoters, participants attempt to game the tax system with grossly inflated tax deductions.
Schemes with international elements
- Offshore accounts and digital assets: The IRS continues to scrutinize attempts to hide assets in offshore accounts and accounts holding digital assets, such as cryptocurrency. The IRS continues to identify individuals who attempt to conceal income in offshore banks, brokerage accounts, digital asset accounts and nominee entities. Asset protection professionals and unscrupulous promoters continue to lure U.S. persons into placing their assets in offshore accounts and structures saying they are out of reach of the IRS. These assertions are not true. The IRS can identify and track anonymous transactions of foreign financial accounts as well as digital assets.
- Maltese individual retirement arrangements misusing treaty: These arrangements involve U.S. citizens or residents who attempt to avoid U.S. tax by contributing to foreign individual retirement arrangements in Malta (or potentially other host countries). The participants in these transactions typically lack any local connection to the host country. By improperly asserting the foreign arrangement as a “pension fund” for U.S. tax treaty purposes, the U.S. taxpayer misconstrues the relevant treaty provisions and improperly claims an exemption from U.S. income tax on gains and earnings in and distributions from the foreign individual retirement arrangement.
- Puerto Rican and foreign captive insurance: U.S. business owners of closely held entities participate in a purported insurance arrangement with a Puerto Rican or other foreign corporation in which the U.S. business owner has a financial interest. The U.S. business owner (or a related entity) claims a deduction for amounts paid as premiums for “insurance coverage” provided by a fronting carrier, which reinsures the “coverage” with the Puerto Rican or other foreign corporation. Despite being labeled as insurance, these arrangements lack many of the attributes of legitimate insurance.
Where appropriate, the IRS will challenge the purported tax benefits from these types of transactions and impose penalties. Moreover, the IRS Criminal Investigation Division is always on the lookout for promoters and participants of these types of schemes.
Taxpayers should think twice before participating in any of these questionable arrangements. After all, taxpayers are legally responsible for what’s on their return.
In the words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus from Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”
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The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Firm.