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Chances of Getting Audited by IRS Lowest in Years
By Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- As millions of Americans race to meet Tuesday's tax deadline, their chances of getting audited are lower than they have been in years.
Budget cuts and new responsibilities are straining the Internal Revenue Service's ability to police tax returns. This year, the IRS will have fewer agents auditing returns than at any time since at least the 1980s.
Taxpayer services are suffering, too, with millions of phone calls to the IRS going unanswered.
"We keep going after the people who look like the worst of the bad guys," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in an interview. "But there are going to be some people that we should catch, either in terms of collecting the revenue from them or prosecuting them, that we're not going to catch."
Better technology is helping to offset some budget cuts.
If you report making $40,000 in wages and your employer tells the IRS you made $50,000, the agency's computers probably will catch that. The same is true for investment income and many common deductions that are reported to the IRS by financial institutions.
But if you operate a business that deals in cash, with income or expenses that are not independently reported to the IRS, your chances of getting caught are lower than they have been in years.
Last year, the IRS audited less than 1 percent of all returns from individuals, the lowest rate since 2005. This year, Koskinen said, "The numbers will go down."
Koskinen was confirmed as IRS commissioner in December. He took over an agency under siege on several fronts.
Last year, the IRS acknowledged agents improperly singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status from 2010 to 2012. The revelation has led to five ongoing investigations, including three by congressional committees, and outraged lawmakers who control the agency's budget.
The IRS also is implementing large parts of President Barack Obama's health law, including enforcing the mandate that most people get health insurance. Republicans in Congress abhor the law, putting another bull's-eye on the agency's back.
The animosity is reflected in the IRS budget, which has declined from $12.1 billion in 2010 to $11.3 billion in the current budget year.
Obama has proposed a 10 percent increase for next year; Republicans are balking.
Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the IRS budget, called the request "both meaningless and pointless" because it exceeds spending caps already set by Congress.
Koskinen said he suspects some people think that if they cut funds to the IRS, the agency won't be able to implement the health law. They're wrong, he said.
The IRS is legally obligated to enforce the health law, Koskinen said. That means budget savings will have to be found elsewhere.
Koskinen said he can cut spending in three areas: enforcement, taxpayer services and technology. Technology upgrades can only be put off for so long, he said, so enforcement and taxpayer services are suffering.
Last year, only 61 percent of taxpayers calling the IRS for help got it. This year, Koskinen said he expects the numbers to be similar. To help free up operators, callers with complicated tax questions are directed to the agency's website.
"The problem with complicated questions is they take longer," Koskinen said.
Your chances of getting audited vary greatly, based on your income. The more you make, the more likely you are to get a letter from the IRS.
Only 0.9 percent of people making less than $200,000 were audited last year. That's the lowest rate since the IRS began publishing the statistic in 2006.
By contrast, 10.9 percent of people making $1 million or more were audited. That's the lowest rate since 2010.
Only 0.6 percent of business returns were audited, but the rate varied greatly depending on the size of the business. About 16 percent of corporations with more than $10 million in assets were audited.
Most people don't have much of an opportunity to cheat on their taxes, said Elizabeth Maresca, a former IRS lawyer who now teaches law at Fordham University.
Your employer probably reports your wages to the IRS, your bank reports interest income, your broker reports investment income and your lender reports the amount of interest you paid on your mortgage.
"Anybody who's an employee, who gets paid by an employer, has a limited ability to take risks on their tax returns," Maresca said. "I think people who own their own business or are self-employed have a much greater opportunity (to cheat), and I think the IRS knows that, too."
One flag for the IRS is when your deductions or expenses don't match your income, said Joseph Perry, the partner in charge of tax and business services at Marcum LLP, an accounting firm. For example, if you deduct $70,000 in real estate taxes and mortgage interest, but only report $100,000 in income.
"That would at least beg the question, how are you living?" Perry said.
Koskinen said the IRS could scrutinize more returns - and collect billions more in revenue - with more resources. The president's budget proposal says the IRS would collect an additional $6 for every $1 increase in the agency's enforcement budget.
Koskinen said he makes that argument all the time, but for some reason, it's not playing well in Congress.
"I say that and everybody shrugs and goes on about their business," Koskinen said. "I have not figured out either philosophically or psychologically why nobody seems to care whether we collect the revenue or not."
Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap
More Business News
Last Update on October 30, 2014 17:28 GMT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. economy grew at a solid annual rate of 3.5 percent in the July-September quarter, propelled by solid gains in business investment, export sales and the biggest jump in military spending in five years.
The Commerce Department says that the third quarter result followed a 4.6 percent rebound in the second quarter. The economy shrank at a 2.1 percent rate in the first three months of the year due to a harsh winter.
The report was the first of three estimates of the gross domestic product, the economy's total output of goods and services. Economists believe the economy is maintaining momentum in the current quarter with consumer spending expected to be helped by a big fall in gas prices.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose slightly last week, but remained at historically low levels that signal a strengthening job market.
The Labor Department says weekly applications increased 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 287,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, declined 250 to 281,000, the lowest level in more than 14 years.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs and have fallen 20 percent in the past year. The steady decline suggests that businesses are sufficiently confident in the economy to hold onto their staffs. That same confidence could lead them to step up hiring.
The economy expanded at a solid annual rate of 3.5 percent in the July-September quarter, according to a separate government report. That's healthy enough to encourage more hiring.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Average U.S. long-term mortgage rates arrested their five-week decline this week but the benchmark 30-year loan remained below 4 percent.
Mortgage company Freddie Mac says the nationwide average for a 30-year mortgage rose to 3.98 percent from 3.92 percent last week. It remained at its lowest level since June 2013. The rate stood at 4.53 percent back in January.
The average for a 15-year mortgage, a popular choice for people who are refinancing, increased to 3.13 percent from 3.08 percent.
The sustained decline in long-term rates sparked a boomlet of homeowners looking to refinance mortgages. Homeowners eager for a bargain rate fired off inquiries to lenders. Applications for "re-fi's" reached their highest level since November 2013 in the week ended Oct. 17, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal regulators are suing baby food-maker Gerber for claiming that its Good Start Gentle formula can prevent or reduce allergies in children.
The Federal Trade Commission says that claim is bogus and that the New Jersey-based company misled consumers by suggesting the formula was the first to meet government approval for reducing the risk of allergies.
The FTC says it wants Gerber to remove that claim from formula labels and advertisements. The agency also wants Gerber to reimburse consumers who have bought the formula since 2011, when the claim began.
Gerber Products Co., also known as NestlT Infant Nutrition, says in a statement that it believes it has met all legal requirements about product claims.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is considering matching online prices from competitors like Amazon.com, raising the stakes for the holiday shopping season.
The world's largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, has matched prices of local store competitors but hadn't followed moves by other retailers like Best Buy or Target to match prices of online rivals. It said it has been testing the strategy in certain markets and is trying to figure out whether to go ahead.
The strategy comes as Wal-Mart is trying to rev up sluggish sales in the U.S. but it could also erode profits.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman says many store managers have matched online prices for customers on a case-by-case basis.
The move was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
UNDATED (AP) -- Microsoft is looking to challenge Apple and Google with its own system for consolidating health and fitness data from various fitness gadgets and mobile apps. Microsoft is also releasing a $199 fitness band to work with this system.
As more athletes and recreationalists track their fitness, a chief frustration has been the inability to bring data from one gadget into an app made by a rival. As a result, nutrition information might reside in one place, while data on calories burned might be in another. Consolidating data gives users and health professionals a bigger picture on health.
Microsoft Health follows the launch of Apple's HealthKit in September and Google Fit earlier this week. Unlike rival systems, Microsoft Health will work with competing phones, not just those running Windows.
MADRID (AP) -- Spain's parliament has approved new intellectual property laws that allow news publishers to charge aggregators each time they display news content in search results.
The law goes into effect Jan. 1 but does not specify how much aggregators like Google News could be charged. Spain's AEDE group of news publishers had lobbied for what is known as the "Google Tax" but has not provided specifics.
Google Inc.'s Spanish division said Thursday it was disappointed with the outcome and will work with Spanish news publishers to help them increase income.
Google last year agreed to help French news organizations increase online advertising revenue and fund digital publishing innovations to settle a dispute there over whether it should pay for news content in its search results.
BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese computer maker Lenovo Group has completed its acquisition of Motorola Mobility from Google Inc. in a move aimed at becoming a global smartphone brand.
Lenovo said it completed the $2.9 billion purchase on Thursday, adding to a flurry of acquisitions and initiatives aimed at transforming the world's biggest maker of personal computers into a major player in wireless computing.
Google bought Motorola Mobility in 2012 for $12.4 billion but appeared to decide quickly the purchase was a mistake. It sold its set-top operations to Arris Group Inc. for $2.35 billion and its smartphone assets, along with some 2,000 patents, to Lenovo.
Lenovo chairman Yang Yuanqing said when the purchase was announced in January that it would help transform Lenovo into a global competitor in smartphones.
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