Owning a business is no easy feat. It comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility and requires extreme organization, patience, and drive. One of the major challenges all business owners face is properly managing money and taxes—all the while following the letter of the law. When times get tough, it can be tempting for business owners to adjust how employment taxes are handled. In turn, this can lead to an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, resulting in charges, fines, even arrests.
It’s important to protect yourself, your employees, and your business, and hopefully, this document can help you understand the depth of employment tax fraud schemes and the consequences of those actions. However, the attorneys at Robert J. Fedor, Esq., L.L.C. are knowledgeable when it comes to providing representation for those facing life-changing criminal charges involving employment tax fraud. An experienced tax attorney with knowledge of IRS investigations and tax law is vital in cases involving fraud charges. For immediate representation, contact Robert J. Fedor, Esq., L.L.C.
PART I: Understand Employment Tax Fraud
PART II: The Most Common Scheme—Tax Evasion
PART III: Other Common Employment Tax Schemes
PART IV: Precautions and Preparations
PART V: Recent Employment Tax Scam Stories
Whether as employee or employer, taxes are a permanent workforce expectation. But let’s first go over what we already know. Employers must withhold and pay employment taxes over to the IRS. Those taxes include federal income tax, social security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes. Despite all the grumbling, these taxes provide important benefits to employees who pay into these federal programs. Here is a rundown:
Collectively known as “employment taxes,” these monies can be easy pickings for business owners awash in red ink or looking to live beyond their means by keeping, rather than paying, these taxes.
Employment taxes can be tempting to those looking for a bigger payday. The IRS has identified a couple of common employment scams including these:
These are not new or novel mechanisms of employment tax fraud. Oftentimes, a business owner can become so enmeshed in the criminal enterprise, that they may convince themselves they will not get caught, or that what they are doing is not really a tax crime. But when the IRS comes calling, the situation quickly turns serious. The IRS rigorously pursues criminal sanctions against persons suspected of employment tax fraud.
A recent report from the IRS shows about the same number of us are paying the taxes we owe, and about the same number are not.
The tax gap or the difference in taxes paid versus those potentially owed (as estimated by the Internal Revenue Service) in the United States is about $381 billion, by the latest estimates. Those billions are monies that would fund a myriad of worthwhile programs and services throughout the country—were they paid as per federal tax laws.
In September of 2019, the IRS released its comparative report that looked at tax revenue in the years 2011 through 2013. There are five types of taxes reviewed by the IRS. These taxes include employment taxes, personal income taxes, corporate taxes, excise, and estate taxes. The bottom line is that the tax gap is roughly the same as it was during tax years 2008 through 2010. In this same report, it estimates that about 83.6 percent of owed taxes are paid on time and voluntarily by U.S. taxpayers. By comparison, the percentage of taxes paid the same way in the 2008 to 2010 tax period was 83.8 percent—virtually the same.
Notes IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig, "Voluntary compliance is the bedrock of our tax system, and it's important it is holding steady. Tax gap estimates help policy makers and the IRS in identifying where noncompliance is most prevalent. The results also underscore that both solid taxpayer service and effective enforcement are needed for the best possible tax administration."
The tax gap is divided into three ways:
Tax gap estimates are an important measure of compliance in the U.S. Compared to many countries, the U.S. enjoys a relatively high and stable rate of tax compliance. While most people are interested in saving on their taxes or seeing tax rates reduced, tax revenue pays for necessary state and federal services. Without tax infrastructure, even basic expectations, like passable roads, good education, food safety, affordable utilities, and federal security can quickly go south.
Despite the budget squeeze at the IRS, the agency continues to push compliance through its criminal tax investigations, and civil and criminal tax audits. That said, no one needs to pay more tax than is legally owed, and there are smart strategies you can use to pay tax obligations, report wealth accurately, and protect individual or corporate wealth from unnecessary taxation.
You or your company might underreport your income a little. Maybe you don’t reveal all of your foreign holdings on your FBAR. Or, maybe you cooked up a scam over a few years that finds you claiming deductions you have no hope of being able to support. Are you going to jail?
We talked earlier about the chronic defunding of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It is true—the number of IRS prosecutions for tax crimes has declined. So, in terms of crime, is the IRS aiming at your accounting practices?
Within the IRS, the Criminal Investigation (CI) unit takes a hard look at tax fraud, tax-associated money laundering, and illegal proceeds earned by legitimate companies through a variety of fraudulent methods. Some of the crimes pursued by CI include:
Committing tax fraud or tax evasion could provoke the interest of the IRS. But remember, the IRS is both underfunded and short-staffed these days. An important aspect of any tax crime is intent. It takes less time and money to work out a civil arrangement with a delinquent taxpayer than it does to try and convict that same taxpayer of a criminal offense.
According to a 2019 Brookings Institute report based on IRS statistics, tax evasion is responsible for one out of every six federal tax dollars owed but not paid. This has a huge impact on the U.S. economy. Every year, unpaid taxes amount to about 75% of the federal budget deficit.
The incidence of misreporting and evasion is particularly significant for sole proprietorships, farms, and high-income households. Illegal tax evasion and legal tax avoidance call into question the fairness of the federal tax system because lower-income households seem to pay more than their fair share of taxes.
Whether it is deliberate or inadvertent, tax evasion is illegal. Unreported income, reporting expenses you did not incur, or failure to pay taxes owed are common forms of tax evasion. Employment tax evasion (such as paying someone “under the table”) is also a common type of tax evasion. Mistakes on a tax return are an example of inadvertent tax evasion.
According to the Brookings Institute, tax evasion rates differ depending on the type of taxes and the manner of reporting:
While tax evasion can bring criminal penalties, including jail and substantial fines, tax avoidance is legal. Tax avoidance includes taking advantage of a property tax deduction and other deductions on a federal income tax filing as a way to limit or avoid taxes. Other legitimate forms of tax avoidance include setting up tax-deferred plans (IRSs, SEP-IRA, or 401k) and tax credits. Since the U.S. tax code is so complex, it's best to seek the advice of an experienced tax attorney before developing a tax avoidance strategy.
Most of us would not intentionally commit tax fraud. Being convicted of filing fraudulent tax returns can put a crimp in your professional life, not to mention the possibility of going to prison. Yet, some people commit tax crimes without even knowing it.
When U.S. tax returns are filed, you sign on the bottom line that the information contained therein is accurate to the best of your knowledge. You attest that the return is an accurate reflection of your financial affairs as far as they are reported in the return.
If you have an accountant or tax preparer create your tax return, FBAR, or other report—you remain legally responsible for the accuracy of the information you provide to the IRS. Errors made on the return that lead to fines are paid by the taxpayer.
Be careful when choosing who prepares the tax returns that you sign. The IRS provides a directory tool for locating a preparer in your area with credentials recognized by the IRS. Here are a couple of tips for choosing and using a tax preparer:
The best way to protect yourself from filing a false income tax return is to verify the information going into your return and choose reputable professionals with verifiable credentials to prepare it. This does not mean you will never be audited—but it improves your chances of sailing through any questions that may eventually come your way.
How troublesome is it if you fail to file your annual tax return, or your quarterly business taxes? This is not a trick question. The answer is, “it depends.”
If you do not owe any taxes, there is no penalty or fine for not filing a tax return. If you do not file though, you are also not eligible for any refund you may be due. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) refers to those who do not file tax returns (whether they owe or not) as “nonfilers.”
In the spring of 2020, nonfilers experienced the disadvantage of receiving economic stimulus payments later because they were not registered with the IRS.
While late refunds and other payments to nonfilers who have no tax obligation are unfortunate, they do not contribute to the tax gap. The tax gap is that gulf between how much tax should have been paid in any tax year, and how much was actually collected.
The U.S. relies heavily on voluntary compliance of taxpayers to file and pay their taxes. As employees, employment taxes that fund government programs are automatically withheld from your paycheck. Business owners are expected to calculate and file their taxes on time. Still, in 2019 the tax gap was $39 billion, so clearly there is a problem.
When identified, the IRS is not charitable with nonfilers who have a tax obligation that accrues due to a failure to file a return. The same thing holds for actual taxes owed on a fraudulent tax return. In the case of a false tax return, a taxpayer can quickly find themselves flirting with an allegation of tax crime.
Failing to file a tax return can quickly grow the amount of a tax liability. Taxpayers may earn a penalty for filing their return late. Even with an extension, there is a penalty for late payment of taxes owed. Combine any of the above with a false tax return and the amount of money owed goes up. Taxpayers trying to avoid paying by not filing a return can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. For those who simply quit paying their taxes over a number of years, an IRS criminal tax investigation can lead to federal prosecution.
The outcome of failing to file a tax return depends on a number of factors, including the skill of the criminal tax attorney retained to handle the matter. If you know you are in arrears, or are contacted by the IRS, speak with skilled legal counsel before responding to the IRS. The intervention of a good tax lawyer at any point in a tax matter can mitigate damages and lead to a better resolution than a criminal tax investigation allowed to run its course.
Failing to pay payroll taxes is serious. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not take these matters lightly. In some cases, penalties for such violations can result in personal liability for those who are deemed responsible for paying these taxes. If the allegations are successful, the IRS can hold the person accused of failing to pay these taxes accountable for 100 percent of the missed payment.
Essentially, there are two main factors that the agency must establish to build a successful claim. The first is that the accused is responsible and the second is that the failure was willful.
The definition of a “responsible party” for these purposes is fairly broad. It does not just include those who are directly responsible for making payroll tax payments but extends to include anyone who “has a duty to perform and the power to direct the collecting, accounting, and payment of trust fund taxes.”
Liability for these taxes also requires a finding that the failure to pay was willful or reckless. It is important to note that this requirement is also interpreted broadly. The failure does not need to be intentional to meet this requirement. The fact that a qualifying individual is aware of the failure is often enough.
Seem harsh? It certainly can be. This broad scope can result in allegations against those who were unaware of a failure to make payroll tax payments. A piece in Accounting Web discusses a case that provides some clarification on how these factors are interpreted.
In this case, the president and CEO of a company were accused of failing to make payroll taxes. Since both had the ability to hire and fire employees and control the company’s bank accounts, the IRS build a case to accuse them of personal liability for failing to make payroll taxes. In theory, it sounds like these individuals could qualify for the above definition of those that are responsible for payroll taxes. In reality, they had hired a controller to take charge of these taxes as well as an accounting firm to run audits and complete income tax returns.
The business began to struggle financially. The accounting firm issued a clean audit but later noted the controller had overstated the business’ receivables and failed to pay payroll taxes. This led the business to bankruptcy.
The IRS accused both the president and CEO of failing to file payroll taxes and issued a trust fund penalty. The lower court agreed with the IRS’ above reasoning, finding in favor of the agency. On appeal, the penalty was overturned. The appellate court noted that the owners did not meet the definition of a willful or reckless failure to pay, likely due to the fact that they had “no actual knowledge” of the failure to pay.
Any allegation of wrongdoing from the IRS, including examples like the one noted above, should be taken seriously. Penalties for violations are often harsh. In addition to steep financial penalties, criminal penalties can also apply. As a result, anyone accused of a tax violation is wise to seek legal counsel.
Classifying employees as independent contractors has been around as long as employers started providing benefits. Employees may enjoy a host of benefits that contract workers with their company may not. Some of those benefits include:
Sometimes a worker may offer services under substantially the same conditions as a hired employee, but remain classified as an independent contractor. Some of the criteria that contribute to that determination are the location of work performed, how work projects are developed and controlled, and how well integrated the services offered by the employee are to the company, along with other factors.
While workers wrongly classified as independent contractors miss out on social net and other benefits, employers who misclassify employees usually benefit. Among the liabilities employers do not have to pay for gig workers are health insurance premiums, payment and withholding of social security and unemployment benefits, or workers’ compensation premiums.
Although it is not difficult to classify an employee as a gig worker, the arrangement may turn sour if the worker applies for unemployment or is injured and seeks workers’ comp benefits. While many workers are afraid to speak up about misclassification, some inequities are coming to light as stimulus programs are developed to offer paycheck and unemployment support for certain types of employees.
Employers who wrongly classify employees may face new heat when furloughed and laid-off workers seek stimulus payments to which they believe they are entitled—only to learn their employer has misclassified their status.
In an employment tax dispute, business owners who misclassify workers can be liable for past and current employment taxes and payments that should have been made on behalf of a properly classified employee. The IRS will work with an employer to evaluate the basis upon which the misclassification occurred—but considerable taxes may still be due.
Best bet? Make sure your employees are properly classified. If you use independent contractors, steer clear of the financial and project control that typifies an employee more than a 1099 worker. And if the IRS contacts you to discuss a payroll tax issue? Call a good tax attorney first.
Outsourcing payroll functions can save business owners and operators time and money. Using vendor expertise lets employers focus on marketing their core strengths and customer fulfillment. For some companies, it is a good deal—and sometimes it isn’t.
A professional employer organization (PEO) is a company that handles personnel services for small- to mid-size companies. These businesses are called employee-leasing firms. With pricing based on the number of employees served, PEOs often provide services that include:
Due diligence is critical when considering a PEO, but there is more. Employee-leasing companies often come under extra scrutiny in any business community because the business model is often associated with tax fraud. Operating individually or as a network of affiliated companies, PEOs may operate respectably for a period of time—or the long term—before it is discovered that employment taxes withheld from workers, and taxes and premiums paid by employers have not been paid in full to vendors or turned over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The IRS may uncover the scam while the PEO is still operating. Oftentimes the company, or group of companies, has quietly wound down with tax obligations still owing and criminal tax charges pending.
Unfortunately, business owners may discover they have a large payroll tax issue when the IRS seeks payment of past-due tax liabilities. A PEO could provide valuable services to your company. If considering an employee-leasing service, careful investigation of your vendor may keep you out of an IRS criminal investigation later.
A pyramid is a stable, solid form. As a payroll tax scam though, it is pretty shaky.
“Pyramiding” is a business model involving companies doing business for a relatively short period of time that collects employment taxes for its workers but fails to turn funds over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). When time runs out for the business as a going concern, the business files for bankruptcy to see its financial liabilities discharged. The owner operators then pack up and move elsewhere in the region, or in the country. This kind of scam is not to be confused with a multi-level marketing or pyramid scheme, although it is common for either a pyramid scheme or pyramiding to result in criminal tax charges.
Another term for “pyramiding” is an in-business repeater, that is, people who stay in business, creating financial liabilities from which relief is sought in bankruptcy court, or which simply go unpaid. When the pattern is recognized, those involved may be charged with tax crimes—if they can be located.
A “repeater” is a discretionary term used by the IRS for someone with multiple tax liabilities. It is not often used for someone with tax problems who is trying to work their way out of a financial fix, but for those committing tax fraud in the form of wind-down and pop-up businesses.
Being an in-business repeater earns you special attention from the IRS. Once on your trail, the IRS usually stays there, waiting for your repeat business. The IRS usually closes in fairly quickly on repeaters with significant tax obligations, by seizing assets and commencement of other legal proceedings. As well, in-business repeaters are usually tagged with paying taxes they failed to pay previously, with substantial penalties.
Payment in cash is easy and fast. Workers appreciate cash and it saves business owners money and hassle—in the short term. Paying cash under the table can also lead to prosecution for tax fraud.
How you structure your payroll is important, regardless of the size of your business. You may be a small business owner or the CEO of a large corporation with several revenue units. Large or small, payroll—and payroll tax—are regulated and require regular, accurate reporting.
There are a number of reasons that employers pay workers under the table, including:
Regardless of whether you pay by cash or check, there are compelling reasons for collecting, accounting and turning over appropriate payroll deductions to the IRS. While prosecution, fines, and loss of liberty can be abstract threats to a business owner trying to line their pockets or pay past-due bills, the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP) is a focused, clear penalty awaiting those who fail their duty to pay over payroll taxes.
As we have discussed earlier, the TFRP is a tool used by the IRS to go after those responsible for collecting and paying over payroll taxes. The TFRP shreds the corporate veil and leaves the personal assets of a business owner vulnerable to seizure for past-due amounts owed on workers whose tax obligations were not lawfully paid over.
The scenes of a worker signing an “x” in the payroll book in return for weekly cash pay exists only in the movies. As a business owner or operation, understand your payroll responsibilities and your payroll tax obligations. Avoiding payroll taxes by paying in cash can be one of the most expensive decisions you ever make.
When the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is interested in your business, the result could be a civil tax audit.
Even if you know you have nothing to worry about, you might be concerned about receiving a friendly letter from the IRS suggesting that you sit down for a talk while providing a few years of your tax documents for review. To be clear, COVID-19 has changed a lot of things. The likelihood of any in-person IRS tax audit, or any tax audit for that matter, is diminished. During the lull, it is a good idea to brush up on why the IRS might be curious about your financials—and what they might do about it.
As we have discussed before, there are a couple of ways you could land on an IRS audit list, including:
If you are selected for an audit, the IRS will contact you via mail with directions about an audit. An audit can be performed by mail and that mode is likely to pick-up steam in the future. If you are contacted by telephone about an audit, do not reveal any information but politely ask for the name and telephone number of the caller. The IRS states they will not start a taxpayer audit by telephone.
The letter you receive should list out documents they would like to review, both hardcopy and electronic. Most of the time, audits are limited to the past three years of returns.
If you receive an audit letter from the IRS, read it carefully, and then contact an experienced tax attorney in your area. Legal counsel will help you respond on time with appropriate documents. Seasoned legal help can help keep the process smooth and uneventful, especially if you have a complex return or considerable wealth.
An important point to remember about failure to pay over employment taxes is the fact that it is personal. The individual or parties responsible for collecting and paying the taxes can be swiftly held personally accountable.
If you are the person with the responsibility to withhold payroll taxes, you will know that collected monies are held in trust until the sum is paid over to the government. If that money is intentionally diverted away from the IRS, to pay business or personal expenses, the IRS can pursue you (and your personal assets) for the amount of the unpaid taxes. The same thing goes if you delegate your responsibility to another to collect and pay over the taxes. If the taxes are not paid, you are on the line for the money not paid, along with the employee who failed to pay them over.
When the diversion of employment taxes becomes known, the IRS can assess a trust fund recovery penalty (TFRP). The penalty is based on the amount of the unpaid trust fund balance. Depending on the length of the tax fraud that led to the IRS investigation, the penalty can potentially bankrupt a business and lead to criminal charges.
As employment taxes belong to the government, failing to pay them over, or failing to pay the TFRP can lead to charges of tax crime. Willful failure to pay over federal taxes is a felony with a price tag of $10,000 in fines, five years in prison—and the balance due on the TFRP.
Payroll taxes are tempting and easily filched. If you are aware of gaps in your employment tax payments, seek advice from a tax attorney experienced with criminal tax defense. If you are considering borrowing some of those payroll taxes—just for just a little while—remember you may end up paying for that private loan for years to come.
One of the potential danger zones for business owners can be found in the collection and payment of payroll taxes. Far too often, owners of small businesses find that they fall behind on their bills and are tempted to use employment taxes to temporarily tide them over until things improve. There are a number of problems with this tactic, not the least of which is that the Internal Revenue Service can hit employers hard for the violation, assessing interest and penalties on top of the taxes owed.
Employment tax mismanagement can, in some cases, even result in criminal charges. Now the IRS says it is starting a new program—the Early Interaction Initiative—to identify employers in danger of falling behind on payroll taxes, and then help them to stay in compliance.
According to Accounting Today, the IRS says its guidance to employers will arrive in several forms, including letters and phone messages, and sometimes delivered in person by an agent. As many Cleveland business owners can attest, when an IRS officer knocks on your business door, it is time to have a discussion with a tax attorney.
While agents will invariably seem to be helpful, the reality is that a visit from a cash-strapped federal agency is not an occasion to chat. Take the agent's card, thank the agent for their time, but politely decline to discuss matters. Then give the card to a tax lawyer--someone who knows not only how to protect your rights, but also how to represent you in hearings, seizure procedures and other matters with the IRS.
Employee classification is a hot button with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If you are aware of some classification misalignments in your company, the IRS Voluntary Classification Settlement Program (VCSP) could be the program you have been waiting for.
Employment tax disputes come up all the time. Problems arise when an employer is paying workers cash and not reporting them on their payroll. If there is an injury in the workplace, and there is no workers’ comp in place for the employee, things can get sticky. As well, so-called independent contractors who are essentially acting as employees become a problem at about the same time—when injuries happen, a payroll is audited, or a disgruntled employee finds out they do not have access to social net programs because their employer did not pay into Social Security on their behalf.
The IRS considers the willful misclassification of employees as tax fraud. An employer can avoid paying taxes and workers’ compensation on workers classified as independent contractors. Recent political battles in California resulted in gig workers maintaining their status as independent contractors. For some workers this was a victory, not so for others.
The IRS lays out some basic dividing lines for who is an employee and who is a contractor. The distinctions run along the lines of who controls or provides work assignments, how a worker is paid and reimbursed, and what kind of working relationship and benefits are in place.
For employers who are aware that some portion of their workforce is improperly classified, the IRS offers a voluntary settlement program that provides some benefits for correcting employee misclassifications. Some points of the program include:
The VCSP offers an avenue toward compliance at a reduced cost. That said, if there are other questionable tax or employment practices in place at your company, it is a good idea to talk with a reputable tax attorney before applying to the program.
Avenues of response are important if the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) suggests you have a payroll tax issue.
Along with the Tax Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Offices of U.S. Attorneys, the IRS places a high priority on the pursuit of employment taxes. According to the DOJ, employment taxes make up approximately 70 percent of revenue collected by the IRS. Unpaid employment taxes represent a sizeable amount of the U.S. Tax Gap.
While business operators, owners, or managers may consider the money collected from their workers as theirs until it is not—taxes withheld from the paycheck of an employee belong to the government. Robust pursuit of those taxes is a priority of the IRS. If you are in arrears on your payroll taxes, it is not unreasonable to expect that you will one day receive a letter from the IRS inquiring about the deficit.
Investigation into employment tax disputes can occur on the federal or state level. If the IRS inquires about your payroll tax calculations or the whereabouts of your payments, your initial response can set the tone for the potential civil or criminal tax investigation that may be ahead.
Whenever you hear from the IRS, your first action should be to contact a tax attorney with significant, successful experience working with the IRS. Perhaps there were accidental miscalculations of your payroll deductions—or you may be skimming the wage withdrawals owed by your company. Regardless of the backstory, when you have the attention of the IRS, guidance is needed from counsel who can help you navigate the road ahead.
Tips to consider if you are facing allegations of a tax crime include:
The aim of your response to the IRS is to halt, defer, or mitigate a potential criminal tax investigation.
A Trust Fund Recovery Penalty is used by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to ensure the timely and appropriate payment of employment taxes.
The withholding and payment of employment taxes is a routine business operation. Anyone who has received a paycheck knows employers are required to turn over part of your pay to the IRS in the form of Social Security, federal income, and Medicare taxes. When they see the deduction on their pay stub, workers know their employer is depositing their taxes with the IRS. This keeps employees straight with the IRS and makes contributions to future Social Security and other benefits when needed.
To make all this happen, the employer must collect and turn the taxes over to the IRS. We have discussed employment tax disputes before. These problems arise when a business owner or employee with bookkeeping or financial control withholds taxes from workers, but does not pay the money over to the IRS.
There are a number of reasons individuals fail to turn over funds to the IRS. A struggling business owner may use employment taxes to pay creditors to keep the business afloat, fully intending to pay back the money. Other business owners see the withholding fund as a means to pay personal expenses or boost their quality of life. Regardless of the reason that withheld money is not paid over to the IRS, it is illegal. When the IRS gets wind of it, a Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP) comes into play.
The TFRP is basically intended to deter responsible individuals from failing to carry out their duty to collect and pay employment taxes over to the IRS. A TFRP is a serious threat because it can be enforced against an individual, whereas many employment-related actions are usually protected by the corporate veil.
Here are TFRP basics:
The TFRP is an effective tool used against individuals who are responsible for paying over-employment taxes to the IRS. If you are a business owner or controller aware of irregularities in your payroll tax payments, speak with an experienced tax attorney sooner than later.
Recent work from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its partners places a spotlight on the use of registered agents.
A registered agent is an essential and required contact for a business entity in the U.S. A registered agent is generally required for corporations, types of partnerships, and limited liability companies (LLCs). The agent is paid to be the official recipient of a variety of communications, including legal papers, tax notices, and forms and papers related to the business itself, such as renewal or other notices from a Secretary of State. The agent can also file papers, such as an annual report, on behalf of the business.
For many businesses, the registered agent is closely associated with the company, but for others, not so much. With the rise of registered agent services, individuals or groups act as agents for companies and business owners whom they have not met. While an attorney may be appointed a registered agent, there is no specialized training or credential required to become the registered agent for an anonymous offshore billionaire. The position requires an address and a willingness to receive or file documents on behalf of a company.
For tax havens like Wyoming, many shell companies are anonymously owned. Local registered agents for these companies are not required to scrutinize the actual owner of the company or verify that the company is not engaged in money laundering or other tax crime.
While recent legislation at the federal level aims to pop the bubble of anonymity around these companies by collecting identifying information about company ownership, the number of companies being registered on a yearly basis across the U.S. outstrips resources available to review the data. The ICIJ article reports the number of LLCs registered in Wyoming soared from approximately 4,200 companies to over 220,000 businesses in the last ten years.
With regard to vetting clients for involvement in criminal tax matters, one registered agent in Wyoming replied, “It’s not my responsibility what a business does. It’s a fraud-friendly state by the laws that are created. Unless the state changes that, I’m just doing my part.”
There seems to be a million details for entrepreneurs to attend to when starting up a new small business. One of those deserving attention before opening the doors of your commercial venture is payroll. Many a business that has come before yours has gotten themselves into trouble with the IRS over payroll tax issues. You certainly want to be sure to get a handle on any potential risks before opening day.
Before you hire any employees, it makes sense to set up a payroll system that will help you to take care of your obligations to your business, your workers, and the Internal Revenue Service. Failure to withhold payroll taxes or to remit withheld taxes can quickly turn the American dream of business ownership into a nightmare. An online small business publication urges entrepreneurs to take steps to “protect you from incurring expensive IRS penalties."
The first bit of advice from Small Business Trends is to get an EIN. The employment identification number (or employer tax ID) is an absolute must-have, enabling you to report taxes and more to the IRS. Simply contact the agency to obtain an EIN.
Also crucial: Figure out whether your workers will be employees or independent contractors. While it might make financial sense to have contractors doing needed tasks, you don't want to arrive at a spot later where the IRS determines that those contractors were actually employees misclassified.
Of course, once you have a payroll system up and running, begin filing required tax reports to the IRS and other authorities. Again, failure to collect the taxes and pass them along to the IRS can result in significant penalties, and in some cases, criminal charges. Taking care of these matters before problems develop can spare you the expense and headaches of employment tax problems requiring the assistance of a tax attorney.
Diverting employment taxes is easy—but how do you protect your business and prevent an employment tax dispute with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)?
In a business of any size, employment tax collection and pay over to the IRS is an important responsibility. Depending on your business or corporate structure, responsibility for payment of employment taxes may land in the finance department, a sole accountant, or an outsourced vendor. Regardless of your business operation, you are responsible for the money owed to the IRS.
Some business owners are deep into deliverables, growth strategies, and staying afloat amid competition. Backroom operations like payroll are easy to delegate. In Ohio and elsewhere, the IRS expects employers to accurately report on income and taxes withheld. Turning over employment taxes to the IRS is part of that. Consider these tips for keeping your books and payments to the IRS above board:
There is little to no defense for a business owner who claims they delegated their employment tax function to an employee or vendor. The IRS can apply a trust fund recovery penalty (TFRP) against the business owner and anyone in the organization who is responsible for paying withholdings but willfully fails to do so. With a TFRP, your personal income and assets are not protected if the IRS chooses to go after you.
Collection and remittance of payroll taxes is an important function for any business. Failure to account for employee withholdings has long-term consequences for the business owner, the business, and the employees whose social security benefits depend upon those payments.
A tip concerning tax fraud or a tax crime to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can pay dividends to whistleblowers. How does that work?
To the IRS, whistleblowers provide credible tips or information that leads to collection of money owed to the U.S. Treasury. As you might guess, it involves more than a rumor or something someone heard. Vague commentary and hearsay do not guarantee a payday from the IRS.
Since implementation of the program in 2007, the IRS has paid over $931 million to whistleblowers who enabled the agency to collect $5.1 billion in tax arrears. That is not chump change. According to its latest report, the IRS paid approximately $120 million to whistleblowers in 2019, on the collection of $616 million that would have otherwise gone uncollected.
It makes sense that the IRS payment schedule for whistleblowers is structured to provide a higher award to those who provide information that leads to higher recovery. In the higher bracket, the IRS pays 15 to 30 percent of the amount actually collected. The break point is about at a $2 million threshold.
For information that results in collection of lower amounts, whistleblowers are paid a discretionary award of approximately 15 percent up to $10 million. This is generally the case when a taxpayer in arrears earns $200,000 or less each year in gross income.
In 2019, the Taxpayer First Act went into effect. Part of the law made it easier for the IRS to communicate with potential whistleblowers. It also enables the agency to offer protections in exchange for information that might lead to a criminal tax investigation or uncover a tax controversy. The legislation makes it harder for employers and other entities to retaliate against someone who notifies law enforcement—or the IRS. The law aims at making a person who has suffered retaliation “whole” through measures that include
There are bone fide reasons for whistleblowers to pull the plug on criminal tax matters. Being a whistleblower comes at a cost and can pay a certain dividend if the information is legit and helps reduce that tax gap between compliant and non-compliant taxpayers.
Payroll taxes fund government programs and agencies. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to initiating and prosecuting employment tax disputes.
In late June 2020, two owners of three fast food restaurants in Ohio were sentenced to two and three years of probation respectively. They will also pay more than $500,000 in restitution for failing to pay over employment taxes. For a two-year time period, the two neglected to pay $346,773 in employment taxes to the IRS. As we have discussed before, not only can holding on to payroll taxes have a negative impact on your personal liberty, it also creates a shortfall for employees who believe the money coming out of their paycheck is paying their tax own liabilities.
In this case, a Special Agent involved with the IRS criminal investigation noted, “Employers who chose to not play by the rules create an unfair competitive advantage over those that do, they are not only cheating the system and their employees; they are cheating future generations relying on those taxes to help build the future.”
Also in late June 2020, a New Jersey business owner pled guilty to tax evasion and employment tax charges when engaged in a plethora of problematic financial behaviors including failure to file federal tax returns, cashing out business proceeds, and paying employees off the books. Ultimately the defendant failed to pay over $213,000 in payroll taxes.
The man admitted to using his business account and the excess proceeds to pay his mortgage, life insurance, credit card, and other personal expenses. He faces ten years in prison plus fines and probation when sentenced this coming December.
At just about the same time in Greensboro, North Carolina, a business owner was sentenced to 18 months in prison for embezzling payroll taxes from her staffing agency. The catch in this case is that the owner was the subject of a criminal tax investigation for failing to pay employment taxes in 2015. Upon conviction, she served prison time. When released, the woman restarted her business and her payroll tax scheme. Not surprisingly, she was again accused of criminal tax fraud to which she pled guilty. When she walks out a free woman from this stint, she will be on probation for three years and owe more than $2 million in restitution. Ouch to all.
Common thread? Payroll tax schemes oftentimes do not pay. Common mistake? Yielding to the siren song of easy cash and failing to contact good criminal tax defense when they had a chance to make a difference.
Ensuring your payroll taxes are promptly paid is a key compliance issue for businesses of all sizes.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) places a priority on enforcement around the timely and accurate pay over of employee wage withholdings. Employee payroll taxes fund state and local government as well as provide important social security benefits to the worker.
It is not unusual to hear that a business owner or employer collected but did not pay withholding taxes due. A bottom line awash in red can push an owner to “borrow” from payroll taxes to try to straighten out the business. Other times, this particular tax crime occurs when an employer decides they need the money to live a higher quality of life or drive an expensive car.
The IRS pursues civil and criminal tax investigations against employers who fail to turn over and account for the payroll taxes they owe. But what if the employer has no idea the wage withholding is not being paid?
In October of 2021, a federal jury convicted the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of an Oklahoma business for employment tax fraud. The CFO, Christina Anglin, was both the Controller and CFO for a business located in Norman, Oklahoma. Her job duties included withholding payroll taxes and paying them over to the IRS. During 2018, Ms. Anglin paid over to the IRS payroll taxes for only one quarter during the year. Overall, the amount she failed to pay over was approximately $920,000. Concurrently, Ms. Anglin approved business expenditures, salaries, and bonuses for executives in the company, including herself.
Ms. Anglin faces prison time and a good deal of restitution and fines.
In this instance, an employee cooked the books, leaving workers and her employer on the line for the missing money. Despite her culpability, the IRS does not look only to the individual to whom payroll responsibilities are delegated—her employer will also be responsible for amounts due to the IRS and then some. Delegation of duty does not reduce owner liability for payroll tax functions.
Whether your payroll service is in-house or handled by a third-party vendor, ensure you have appropriate checks and balances in place to deter and prevent payroll tax fraud. Your company—and your workers—are depending on it.
A San Jose police officer recently found himself charged with a host of serious criminal tax charges. The man, 47- year old Robert Foster, was a polygraph operator with the San Jose Police Department. Mr. Foster was not charged with any crimes surrounding his employment, but rather in his capacity as the owner of a business about which his employer had no knowledge.
Along with his wife and eight other individuals, Mr. Foster ran Atlas Private Security, a business interest that provided security guards and polygraph services to local area companies. The business was apparently successful enough that Mr. Foster and his cohort began to take liberties with state and federal regulations involving workers’ compensation and payment of state and federal taxes. The criminal tax investigation into the business found
Mr. Foster funneled $8.9 million dollars in payroll away from the business to create a payroll tax liability of $578,716.56.
Just some of the felony charges with which Mr. Foster and his associates are charged include:
While these are all fairly routine white-collar tax crimes, the breadth of the charges is significant. Overall, the company laundered over $18 million and also threatened with deportation one employee who was investigating her options for workers’ compensation benefits.
Scheduled to be arraigned in November of 2020, Mr. Foster and others involved face prison time if convicted on more than 40 felony charges. This troubling scenario underscores an urgent message for business owners who may currently be engaged in questionable payroll tax practices or even those with offshore tax investments on which an FBAR report may not have been filed for several years.
Mr. Foster illustrates what occurs when you do not obtain good legal advice early enough in the cycle to impact the initial outcome. Good legal defense may yet help Mr. Foster find a lower impact end-game than he is currently facing. For the rest of us, the story reminds us to get good legal advice sooner than later.
Tax crime pays—for a while. A North Carolina couple recently learned how expensive tax fraud can really be.
Earlier, we discussed the interesting matter of Dr. James Rice and his wife. An orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Rice and his wife ran a private practice in Pinehurst. The pair decided to stop paying over their employment tax obligations to the IRS in 2007. The taxes, collected from the wages of their employees, eventually totaled $580,000 by 2016 when agents conducting an IRS criminal investigation came knocking. As well, the couple dispensed with income taxes altogether between 2014 and 2016—failing to declare and pay their own tax liabilities.
The ill-gotten gains were used for country-club dues, expenses related to their home and their dog, as well as the truffle business of Mrs. Rice. After an almost week-long trial in September 2021, the jury took 41 minutes to convict the couple. They were convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud, one count of tax evasion, two counts of failure to pay over employment taxes and three counts of failure to file tax returns. Dr. Rice was also convicted on three counts of failure to file corporate tax returns.
In late January 2022, Dr. and Mrs. Rice were sentenced to five years in prison. They must also pay $2.4 million in restitution.
Special Agent Donald Eakins with the Charlotte Field Office said, “Failure to pay over withheld taxes is a serious offense. Employment tax evasion results in the loss of tax revenue to the U.S. government and the loss of future Social Security and Medicare benefits for those employees. The investigation of employment tax fraud is a priority for IRS Criminal Investigation, and our special agents will vigorously pursue anyone who collects these taxes and then uses the funds for their own personal gain.”
It is the job of the IRS to pursue those seeking illegal profit by bending and breaking laws around employment tax, offshore taxes, money laundering, or foreign bank accounts. For those who would never dream of being involved in a criminal tax matter, a prison sentence sounds fitting. For individuals who are currently involved in a criminal tax enterprise, a prison sentence of five years is chilling.
Dr. and Mrs. Rice took their best shot and lost big time. We do not know what measures were taken to try and avoid a jury trial involving overwhelming evidence against the defendants. If you find yourself the target of a criminal tax investigation, the advice is unequivocal—speak with an experienced criminal tax defense attorney as quickly as possible.
Sometimes an employment tax dispute is more than that. For a New York businessman, stashing the payroll taxes became a habit, and then a tax crime.
It is the responsibility of business owners in the U.S. to withhold certain wage taxes and pay those taxes over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) along with payment of their own withholding taxes. Seems pretty simple. Unfortunately, employment tax fraud is common. That pot of cash withheld from employee taxes can sing a siren song to business owners short of cash, trying to improve their bottom line, or just dreaming of a new car or other fancy trimmings.
As we have discussed before, the efforts of the IRS to pursue business owners for their tax obligations is just as common as the crime itself. In the case of Mr. Dean Whittles, an IRS criminal tax investigation found Mr. Whittles failed to pay $617,843 in payroll taxes. An experienced entrepreneur, Mr. Whittle formerly owned several businesses in the Syracuse area, including the popular collegiate watering hole DJ’s on The Hill, Dejon’s Hair Designs, and several other salons.
Between the years of 2016 and 2019, Mr. Whittles collected employee withholding taxes but never quite got them to the IRS. Instead, Mr. Whittles paid other business and personal expenses. While the story is not new, there are underlying points to be made here. As a criminal tax matter, spending employee withholding is likely to be identified by the IRS. Failing to pay over withholding is not a victimless crime. Employees expect the benefits of paying into the American social safety net.
Disputes over employment taxes that have been embezzled never end well for business owners who are held personally and professionally responsible for the lost funds. In this case, it was the business owner who took the funds—and pled guilty to the charge. As a result, he will be repaying $617,843 of those taxes to the IRS. In other cases, an employee siphons off the funds, which still leaves the business owner on the line through Trust Fund Recovery. Business owners are responsible for the payment of withholding taxes regardless of their delegation of the role.
The last point of payroll tax theft and other business-related tax crime—speak with a criminal tax defense attorney as soon as possible if you want to avoid incarceration. Mr. Whittles has divested himself of his New York businesses and moved to sunny Arizona. But then in June of 2022, he was sentenced to two years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and must pay the IRS the money he withheld plus an additional $10,000 fine.
A Miami business man will spend two years in prison and still owe a tax bill of almost $10 million. There has to be a better way.
Employment taxes are one of those can’t-really-be-avoided aspects of operating or owning a business. As we have discussed, employment taxes are collected by employers to fund an array of programs maintained by the federal government. These include federal income taxes, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes.
When employers fail to pay taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), they usually forego payment of all of these program taxes. Regular employment taxes represent a significant portion of taxes collected each year by the IRS to fund federal programs. The IRS robustly reinforces regulations around payroll taxes, pursuing employers and employees who unwittingly fall into non-compliance when their employer withholds their due share of these taxes.
Our firm is focused on tax law and helping clients work through sticky situations like IRS audits, criminal tax investigations, and employment tax disputes. We work frequently with business owners who used payroll taxes to ease a stressed bottom line or to fund lifestyle pursuits. The case of Ricardo Betancourt offers a cautionary tale.
Mr. Betancourt owned several businesses in the South Florida area that provided package delivery service. The businesses were successful, pulling in about $100 million per year in gross revenues. The business employed hundreds of workers. Had Mr. Betancourt properly collected and turned over payroll taxes to the IRS, this story would be one of good businesses decisions and a well-earned fortune. Unfortunately, as often happens in these matters, one or two poor choices can snowball, altering the trajectory of a seemingly successful career.
For reasons unknown, starting somewhere around 2009, Mr. Betancourt ceased to turn over his employment taxes to the IRS. After starting down that road, Mr. Betancourt neglected his payroll taxes until 2016, undoubtedly after the launch of an IRS criminal tax investigation.
Already successful in business, Mr. Betancourt used the approximately $10.8 million he withheld from his employees to fund a bucket list of classic cars, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, expensive baubles and payments for plastic surgery.
For the tax crime, Mr. Betancourt will do the time—24 months to be precise, and he will be paying almost $10 million in restitution and penalties, plus probation.
To the big surprise of no one, Credit Suisse is back in the headlines after a whistleblower leaked information about 18,000 Swiss bank accounts.
The document trove reveals Credit Suisse has been helping the wealthy become wealthier for decades. It is also possible the leak will show Credit Suisse has knowingly been holding billions for account holders whose wealth resulted from criminal activity, tax fraud, and money laundering. Whoops.
Credit Suisse is no stranger to penalties and compliance actions. A piece in The Guardian amply details the institution’s frolic through financial mayhem for decades including bank shredding parties to destroy evidence, bypassing U.S. sanctions on Iran and Sudan, and tax evasion the world over—to name a few.
Back in 2020, an anonymous whistleblower leaked information on the accounts, which were managed by Credit Suisse from the 1940s to the 2010s. The data was provided to one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany, Sueddeutsche Zeitung. The newspaper then shared the information with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and 45 other news outlets like Le Monde, The Guardian, and The New York Times. More than 160 journalists analyzed the banking data.
Like the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, and the Luxembourg Leak document, troves examined by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the journalists working through the Credit Suisse leaks have identified the usual ranks of the wealthy who use Swiss accounts. They also identified a host of criminal actors and dictators awash in dirty money that sloshed around the world before quietly coming to rest in Switzerland.
As we have noted before, an offshore tax haven or a foreign bank account is not illegal. These types of accounts can provide a stable place to park currency in an increasingly volatile economy. Beneficial tax regulations can reduce tax liability for U.S. owners—assuming the account is properly reported to the IRS.
With some of the Credit Suisse accounts, however, the account owners are those under investigation for human rights or criminal abuses. The OCCRP identifies Rodoljub Radulovic as a “Balkan drug lord” who was also a leading member of a cocaine smuggling cartel before racking up a series of fraud charges in the U.S. Currently on the lam, Mr. Radulovic apparently had two Credit Suisse accounts. Another sizeable Credit Suisse corporate account was held by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company, largely controlled by the family of Muammar Gaddafi before his death. And the lists go on.
While sensational, this journalism points to the very big role of global financial institutions in maintaining a rigged economy where the illegally wealthy find support and secrecy for their efforts. Said the whistleblower who turned over this data, “The pretext of protecting financial privacy is merely a fig leaf covering the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators of tax evaders.”
Many people get caught up in allegations of tax fraud. In 2020, the king of Philadelphia Cheesesteak and his son were indicted for filing false tax returns and other criminal tax charges.
Take a hoagie, stuff it with thinly sliced steak and cheese, toast until the bun is crusty, the steak is steaming and the cheese is melted, and top with anything you like. Tony Luke’s, a South Philly eatery owned by Anthony Lucidonio Sr. and son, Nicholas Lucidonio, is a famous local sandwich shop known for its cheesesteak. Unfortunately, it is not only the hoagies getting toasty these days, as the two owners were charged in late summer with cooking the books— keeping two sets of books that may have concealed as much as eight million dollars in receipts from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Altogether, 82-year-old Mr. Lucidonio Sr., and his son, 54-year-old Nicolas, face more than 20 counts of criminal tax fraud.
We've previously discussed the problems that can rise when paying cash under the table, that is, cash paid without report to the IRS or payment of payroll taxes. The IRS alleges the duo kept two sets of books. In one set, they recorded, reported, and paid over employment taxes on a portion of their earnings from their business. The pair then paid employees a substantial amount more in cash—without withholding employment taxes or reporting the income. The accountant retained by the pair was directed to prepare false income tax returns and quarterly business returns.
Of the indictment, the U.S. Attorney General working on the matter, William M. McSwain, stated, “Tony Luke’s is an iconic Philadelphia brand, but that is not what matters in the eyes of the law. These are serious allegations and it should go without saying that everyone has an obligation to follow the law. This alleged scheme victimized honest taxpayers in two ways: first, by hiding more than $8 million in revenue from the IRS and second, by avoiding payroll taxes.”
The scheme apparently ran from 2006 to 2016, with a burp in 2015 when the pair were engaged in a courtroom franchising and recipe disagreement with Tony Luke Jr., also a son of Mr. Lucidonio. According to the indictment, Anthony and Nicolas were concerned legal troubles might shed light on their activities, so 2015 returns were doctored to report more income—and also included fake income tax deductions to offset the increase in income reported.
If convicted, the father and son face years in prison, extensive fines, and probation. Although facing serious tax charges, they are presumed innocent until found otherwise. Whether you make a million dollars making sandwiches, steel, or in financial transactions, if you become embroiled in an IRS criminal tax investigation—speak with an experienced tax attorney for help mitigating the impact of charges that may be pending against you.
A Ponzi scheme is an old type of investment fraud that involves paying investors already in the pipeline with proceeds from new investors who are suckered into the program. Instead of investing funds deposited by investors, the proceeds usually provide a luxe lifestyle for fraudsters while returning some profit to initial investors. When incoming investments lag, or investors wise up and try to withdraw their money, the scam collapses.
Although he did not invent it, the scam is named for an Italian con artist, Carlo Ponzi. An impressive business failure, Mr. Ponzi nonetheless scammed investors and financial institutions of Boston during the 1920s, causing investors to lose approximately $20 million (about $200 million by current standards) when the scheme collapsed. By comparison, Bernie Madoff, the most notorious swindler in recent history, lifted $18 billion from his investors (according to Wikipedia, a sum that was about 53 times the heft of Mr. Ponzi’s swindle).
In this case from 2021, 38-year-old John Piccareto Jr, a New York man, took a job with Lucian Development in 2012. Lucian was a company owned and run by Perry Santillo and Christopher Parris. Lucian Development was a classic Ponzi operation—selling fake promissory notes. Money coming from new investors was used to keep earlier investors happy. Mr. Piccareto was not initially aware the business was a scam. When he figured it out, he signed on in a big way, soliciting new investors and bringing in almost $600,000.
According to the IRS, Mr. Piccareto was involved in the take between January 2017 and June 2018. During that time, he was involved in bilking an estimated 400 investors of about $18 million. As is the habit of most individuals engaged in tax fraud, Mr. Piccareto filed false income tax returns that claimed $6,576 in taxable income. He failed to mention that his income that year was just about $538,548.
Mr. Piccareto will spend seven years in prison considering his actions. Both Mr. Santillo and Mr. Parris were sentenced to 210 months (17.5 years) in prison. Together, they swindled more than 1,000 people for over $100 million. Ponzi schemes and filing fraudulent tax returns are nothing new—and people who engage in big-time capers are likely to catch the prosecutorial eye of the IRS.