Your taxes are due!

NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

Tax Day is officially here.

If you still haven’t filed, then you’re among the minority. As of the end of last week, the IRS had received nearly 100 million tax returns — roughly three-quarters of the returns it expects to get this tax season.

For procrastinators who are owed a refund, it won’t hurt to file late . Penalties are only incurred if you owe tax. But it’s still a good idea to file for an extension, just in case you end up being wrong and actually owe money.

So far this tax season, about 12 million taxpayers have requested extensions.

The average refund is $2,792, up 1% from last year, and people are using them for everything from hosting a crawfish boil to paying off student loans.

But because your refund may be one of the biggest checks you may receive all year, be careful to protect your identity . Scammers are also on the prowl during tax season, and the IRS has issued an alert about a new phone scam where IRS impersonators are calling taxpayers and asking for personal information or demanding that they pay back taxes.

The IRS has also warned taxpayers to watch out for fake charities, emails from IRS impersonators and shady tax preparers who do things like claim bogus children or convince you to hide income offshore.

The recently discovered Heartbleed bug , a security flaw that exposes Internet users’ passwords, has also raised questions about whether it’s safe to file online, though the IRS says taxpayers should ignore the bug and still file their taxes.

If you want to be extra safe, you can file the old-fashioned way — by snail mail. Although the vast majority of filers prefer to file online, with nearly 90% of all returns submitted electronically this year.

Another thing to watch out for: audit red flags . While the chance of being audited is less than 1% on average, certain actions are more likely to spark scrutiny from the IRS. Common triggers include overstating your charitable donations, being a millionaire, and claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit — a commonly abused credit.

Don’t give Uncle Sam a 0% loan
Claiming strange deductions will also raise eyebrows. Some of the weird write-offs that have failed over the years include airfare for a pet, a birthday party, and pantyhose. But others are perfectly acceptable, even though they may sound bizarre. Hermit crab food, scuba trips and Viagra for a woman were all given the green light by the IRS.

You can even claim a boyfriend or girlfriend as a tax break , but your significant other will have to earn less than $3,900, live with you year-round and you must pay for more than half of their expenses.

Once you’ve filed, relax and celebrate with any one of dozens of Tax Day deals , including free cookies, curly fries, massages and paper shredding.

Source: Money.Cnn.Com. ” Your Taxes are due! ” By Blake Ellis. April 15, 2014.

How Washington spends your taxes

Your tax preparation software may tell you how much you owe in federal income taxes for 2013, but it won’t tell you how your money is spent by the federal government.

No worries. The National Priorities Project did the math for you, based on actual federal spending in 2013.

Broadly speaking, for every dollar you pay in federal income taxes , about half goes to military spending (27%) and spending on federal health programs (22.7%). The latter covers everything from Medicare and Medicaid to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The next biggest chunk of your income taxes (13.8%) goes to paying interest on U.S. debt.

After that, 9.8% is used to support unemployment and jobs-related programs, such as career training and temporary assistance for needy families.

Veterans benefits get about 5% of your federal income taxes, as do food and agriculture programs.

Running the government, including overhead costs and spending on various agencies and offices, such as the FBI and immigration services, comes in at 4.5%.

:: Related calculator: How far will your salary go in another city ::

Four percent, meanwhile, goes to housing programs, such as community development block grants, while 2% is spent on education, including everything from Head Start programs to Pell Grants .

And less than 2% is spent on each of the following: science, international affairs, transportation, and energy.

Here’s what that all means in dollars-and-cents spending for someone who paid $15,000 in federal income taxes for 2013:

  • Military: $4,064.34
  • Health: $3,409.19
  • Interest on the debt: $2,080.26
  • Unemployment and Labor: $1,468.10
  • Veterans benefits: $758.00
  • Food and Agriculture: $756.88
  • Government: $682.39
  • Housing and community: $598.84
  • Education: $304.69
  • Energy and Environment: $278.17
  • International Affairs: $226
  • Transportation: $204.03
  • Science: $168.11

See how the total you paid in federal income taxes for 2013 breaks down .

Note: The National Priorities Project ‘s calculations exclude payroll taxes. Payroll taxes fully pay for Social Security benefits. But they only cover a portion of Medicare’s expenses — the remainder is covered by general federal revenue and premiums.

Source: Cnn.com. ” How Washington spends your taxes “. By Jeanne Sahadi. April 11th, 2014.

COUNTDOWN TO APRIL 15 TAX-FILING DEADLINE: ARE YOU READY?

OK, procrastinators, here’s a friendly reminder: Time is running out. In less than two weeks it’s April 15, the deadline for filing your federal and state tax returns.

The good news: With very few tax changes for 2013, there aren’t any big head-scratchers to sort out this year. That’s a big change from a year ago, when the tax-filing season was delayed by a flurry of last-minute tax-law changes enacted by Congress.

But that doesn’t mean you can coast entirely this year. It’s still easy to trip yourself up with math errors, filing mistakes or even forgetting to report your fantasy football winnings.

Here are some last-minute items worth noting:

Don’t panic, but do file

“A lot of people panic this time of year,” said California Franchise Tax Board spokeswoman Denise Azimi, either because they can’t pay what they think they owe or don’t have all their paperwork together.

If that’s you, don’t avoid the April 15 deadline. You’re better off filing the return on time and paying what you can, then waiting 30 days for a billing notice with the exact amount of tax due. “You can then get on a payment plan and pay it off over time,” said Azimi. “It’ll save you a lot of headaches and money down the road.”

If you don’t file, you could be subject to penalties and interest, which can only add to your tax burden. Monthly installment plans, with a one-time startup fee, are offered by both the FTB and Internal Revenue Service.

Avoid the easy errors

One of the biggest mistakes, especially for those filing a paper return, is basic math. Double-check everything before you file.

If you’re filing an electronic form – and more than 80 percent of California and federal taxpayers now e-file their returns – the math computations will be done for you. But you can still make errors by inputting the wrong Social Security number, the incorrect tax-filing status (married, head of household, filing jointly, etc.) or mistyping your bank routing number for direct deposit of a refund.

Another common error is misstating what you paid last year in estimated tax payments. In California, it’s the No. 1 mistake on state tax returns, said Azimi. To see what was paid for 2013 taxes, taxpayers can go online and create a “MyFTB” account to access their tax history and other information.

And above all, don’t forget to sign and date your return.

Don’t overlook tax credits

When filing, be sure to look for state or federal tax credits that might apply, such as home energy-efficiency improvements, college costs, child care expenses and charitable donations.

One of the commonly overlooked credits is the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, known as the EITC. Designed to help low-income working adults, it’s a refundable credit, so even if you don’t owe taxes, you could still get money back in your pocket. (It’s federal only, not available on state returns.)

It’s based on income and family size, but can be as much as $6,000. Generally, your 2013 earned income must be below $51,567 for couples filing jointly with three children or less than $14,340 for a single with no children. To see if you qualify, search for the “EITC Assistant” tool on the IRS.gov website. The average credit last year was $2,300, according to the IRS.

Fantasy football income?

Another source of tax return errors is not reporting all your income, even from that online fantasy football league.

“If you don’t report the income, you can expect to hear from the IRS,” said Sandra Block, senior associate editor with Kiplinger personal finance magazine, in an email. If you received a Form 1099-MISC for casino winnings or a Form 1099-DIV for dividends, for instance, be assured that the IRS received a copy, too.

“The IRS views fantasy football in the same way it views gambling and lottery winnings, which are also taxable,” said Block. “Even if you find buried treasure in your backyard – as happened to a couple in Northern California last year – the found property is taxable at its fair market value.”

And she wryly noted: Stolen property is also considered taxable, but “it’s unlikely that most criminals report it.”

New for donors

For charitable contributions, three new funds have been added to California tax forms: the American Red Cross, Keep Arts in School and Protect Our Coast and Oceans. They are among 20 funds listed on state tax forms, including those for Alzheimer’s research, breast cancer, seniors’ programs and state parks. Taxpayers can check a box to make contributions – in any amount – that are either deducted from their refund or added to their tax payment.

In 2011, the last year that statistics were compiled, more than 294,000 Californians made more than $4 million in donations on their tax returns, according to the FTB.

Think twice on refunds

Lots of taxpayers relish getting that refund in the mail or direct-deposited to their bank. But personal finance advisers say that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“As much as people love getting a big check from the IRS, it’s not good money management,” said Kiplinger’s Block. “By adjusting your withholding, you can give yourself an automatic raise and use the money to pay off debt or increase your retirement savings.” She recommends asking your employer to adjust your W-4 form, so you’ll immediately get more take-home pay that can be allotted to savings or debts.

And she noted, being owed a refund can make you vulnerable to fraud due to identity theft, which has been a nagging problem for the IRS. In recent years, thousands of taxpayers have discovered that someone else, using stolen Social Security or other data, has filed a tax return in their name, stealing their tax refund. As part of a beefed-up enforcement effort, the IRS said this week that it prevented $17.8 billion in refund-fraud attempts in 2013, obtaining more than 1,000 indictments and 400 convictions of tax return fraudsters.

Ask for help

With the tax-filing deadline just days away, don’t despair. Sharpen those pencils or, better yet, hit the computer keyboard, pick up the phone or seek out free tax-preparation help that’s still available through April 15.

Last-minute help for filing taxes

Franchise Tax Board

For help with your California tax return, call (800) 852-5711 or go online: www.ftb.ca.gov . The website has tax forms, links for free e-filing and answers to frequently asked questions. Taxpayers can also chat online with an FTB tax agent weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Click on “FTB LiveChat” on the home page). Walk-in help is also available, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, at the FTB’s Sacramento office, 3321 Power Inn Road, Suite 250. You can also find instructional videos on FTB tax topics at YouTube.com .

IRS

In Sacramento, the local IRS office, at 4330 Watt Ave., is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (The office will stay open until 6 p.m. on April 14-15.) Taxpayers can pick up forms and get tax-filing help from IRS staffers. Or call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time) or go online to: www.irs.gov . The IRS has dozens of tax-filing videos on YouTube and a free mobile app – IRS2Go – for iPhone and Android phones.

VITA/TCE sites

Get free tax-preparation help through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs, held at various community locations (libraries, schools, churches, etc.) in every county. Volunteers answer questions and will help file returns, primarily for those with incomes below $52,000, the disabled and those over 60. Search IRS.gov by ZIP code to find the nearest locations, including those with bilingual help in Cantonese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and other languages.


Source: Sacbee.com. ” Personal Finance: Countdown to April 15 tax-filing deadline: Are you ready? “. Claudia Buck. April 6, 2014.

7 Smart Ways to Take Advantage of Your Tax Refund

Tax season is a time of stress for many, but it can be a joyful time for the roughly 75 percent of Americans who receive income tax refunds.

While the refund really means you’re getting back money you loaned to the government at no interest, in practical terms it often means an unexpected infusion of cash into your wallet or bank account. Last year’s average income tax refund was $2,755, according to the Internal Revenue Service. That’s a nice chunk of change.

It’s a great problem to have: What do you do with your windfall?

The best choice for one person may not be the best choice for another. But experts agree on one thing: If you have debt, apply your refund to paying it off, whether it’s credit card debt, student loan debt or other consumer debt.

“People should still be focusing first on paying down debt,” says Meisa Bonelli, a Wall Street finance and tax professional whose Millennial Tax company advises entrepreneurs on business and tax strategy.

Debt, particularly student loan debt, should be a primary target because it limits financial options, preventing people from doing what they want with their money, whether it’s buying a house, buying a car or taking a vacation. “Get that debt gone,” she says. “It holds you back from everything else you want to do in life.”

Eric Rosenberg, a financial analyst who writes the blog Narrow Bridge Finance, agrees. “The No. 1 thing anyone should do with a tax refund is pay down debt,” he says.

After he left graduate school with $40,000 in student loan debt,

he focused on aggressively paying it off. Using all his tax refunds and bonuses, he made the final payment just two years and six days after his graduation.

With his student loan debt cleared away, he began saving his tax refunds, with the goal of buying a home. He didn’t apply any of his refund money to splurges — instead, he saved for fun and vacation with his regular income. The refunds were earmarked for bigger things.

“I treated it like it was extra money that I didn’t need to live on,” Rosenberg says. “I always encourage people to think long term, not short term.”

Others believe that giving yourself license to splurge with part of your refund helps you save the rest. Stephanie Halligan, a financial consultant and blogger, signs a contract with herself before she does her taxes, allocating 50 percent of her refund to student loans and 25 percent to long-term savings. She can spend the remaining 25 percent on whatever she wants.

“It’s easy to react on impulse and emotion when your refund hits, so prepare now for what you’ll do with that moolah later,” she advises on her personal finance website, The Empowered Dollar.

If you’re getting a big refund ­– a check in the ballpark of $1,000 or more for taxpayers who don’t have a side business — consider adjusting your withholding so that you’ll have that money available to you during the year. But those who don’t have substantial savings want to avoid a scenario in which they owe four figures to the IRS at tax time.

“I think people should withhold the maximum they can withhold,” Bonelli says. Rosenberg concurs. As his businesses, running Narrow Bridge Finance and building websites, have grown, his refunds have shrunk. Last year he had to pay the IRS.

Here are the seven smartest things you can do with your refund:

Pay down debt. If you have any consumer debt — student loans, credit card balances or installment loans — pay those off before using your refund for any other purpose. Car payments and home mortgages aren’t in this category, but you can consider paying extra principal.

Add to your savings. “You can never save enough,” Bonelli says. You can use the money to build up your emergency fund, your kids’ college funds or put it toward a specific goal, such as buying a house or a car or financing a big vacation.

Add to your retirement accounts. If you put $2,500 from this year’s tax refund into an IRA, it would grow to $8,500 in 25 years, even at a modest 5 percent rate of return, TurboTax calculates. If you saved $2,500 every year for 25 years, you’d end up with more than $130,000 at that same 5 percent rate of return.

Invest in yourself. This could mean taking a class in investing, studying something that interests you or even taking a big trip. “Do something that enriches yourself or adds value to your life,” Bonelli says. She is planning to take a class in art therapy this year using money from her refund.

Improve your home. Consider putting your refund to good use by adding insulation, replacing old windows and doors or other improvements that would save energy, and therefore money. Or perhaps it’s time to remodel your bathroom or kitchen. You’re adding value to your home at the same time you’re improving your living experience.

Apply your refund toward next year’s taxes. This is common among self-employed taxpayers, who are required to pay quarterly taxes since they don’t have taxes withheld. By applying any overpayment toward upcoming tax payments, you can free up other cash.

Splurge on something you’ve always wanted to do. If you’re out of debt and have substantial savings, this may be the time to take the trip to Antarctica or Australia that you’ve always dreamed of taking. Such an experience can be life-changing, and you never know what impact it will have on your future until you actually do it.

Source: DailyFinance.com. “7 Smart Ways to Take Advantage of Your Tax Refund.” By Teresa Mears. March 31, 2014.

3 Months Into 2014, You’re Likely Still Working for the Tax Man

Between income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and all those other taxes, the amount of your income that flows into government coffers adds up quickly.

One way to think about its is to figure out how much of your working year goes to covering your taxes. The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation calculates annually how many working days it takes for the average American worker to earn enough to pay all his federal, state and local taxes , plots it on the calendar, and dubs it “Tax Freedom Day.”

Last year, that day was April 18, reflecting that Americans on average paid 29.4 percent of their income in federal and state taxes. But that date varies widely from state to state.

Early Freedom From Taxes

Residents in different states see varying percentages of their income go toward taxes for a variety of reasons. State tax rates vary. So does relative income, with less prosperous states tending to pay lower federal tax rates than those with more high-income taxpayers.

The lowest-tax states in 2013 were Louisiana and Mississippi, whose Tax Freedom Days were both March 29. All five lowest-tax states were in the South, with Tennessee, South Carolina and New Mexico rounding out the top five.

All five take a relatively low percentage of their residents’ income in state and local taxes. Most rely on sales taxes; South Carolina’s the exception, with a high level of revenue from property taxes. Louisiana and Mississippi boast the highest percentage of federal aid of any state, getting back from Washington far more than they send to it.

Paying More Tax, into May

At the other end of the spectrum, Connecticut residents took the longest to account for their taxes in 2013, with a Tax Freedom Day of May 13, outlasting No. 2 New York by a full week. The Northeast dominated the top of the list, with New Jersey and Massachusetts coming in third and fourth, and Illinois taking No. 5.

Most of these states are among the highest in terms of state and local taxes paid per person, reflecting their relative wealth. All five also take more than 10 percent of their residents’ income in the form of state and local taxes, with New York exceeding the national average by almost 3 percentage points.

Property and state income taxes make up a huge portion of the revenue sources for these states, taking advantage of the extensive property holdings and high income that their residents enjoy.

What’s Your Tax Freedom Day?

A Tax Foundation map shows the 2013 Tax Freedom Day for your state. The announcement of Tax Freedom Day 2014 is expected to come soon.

You can follow Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google+ .

Source: DailyFinance.com. ” 3 Months Into 2014, You’re Likely Still Working for the Tax Man “. By Dan Caplinger. March 31, 2014.

Bitcoin Currency Use Impeded by IRS Property Treatment

The Internal Revenue Service’s decision to treat Bitcoin as property will make tax consequences part of every transaction involving the virtual currency.

So much so that Bitcoin users and analysts say the IRS guidance announced yesterday complicates people’s ability to use it as a currency.

“This greater clarity creates greater wrinkles,” said Mark Williams, who teaches finance at Boston University. “This reinforces that strategy of holding it as a commodity, which then undermines its value as a transactional currency.”

The IRS, faced with a choice of treating Bitcoins like foreign currency or property, chose property. Exchanging Bitcoins for goods, services or dollars will generate taxable income or losses, depending on what the Bitcoin investor paid.

The IRS ruling could reduce the volume of transactions conducted with the virtual currency, said Pamir Gelenbe, a venture partner at Hummingbird Ventures. The firm invests in technology businesses.

Purchasing a $2 cup of coffee with Bitcoins bought for $1 would trigger $1 in capital gains for the coffee drinker and $2 of gross income for the coffee shop.

“It’s challenging if you have to think about capital gains before you buy a cup of coffee,” Gelenbe said.

Jered Kenna, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur who owns Bitcoins, said in an interview that after hearing about the IRS guidance he needs to “talk to my accountant.”

‘Increasing’ Cost

More seriously, Kenna said the new rules would complicate the smooth functioning of the Bitcoin payment network.

“You’re increasing the cost of accounting to everyone who touches a Bitcoin transaction,” Kenne said.

Others involved in Bitcoin downplayed the effects of the decision, saying it provides needed certainty for investors. Also, because Bitcoins are a long-term investment, much like stocks, the IRS ruling didn’t surprise them.

The ruling takes effect immediately and covers past and future transactions and tax returns. The IRS said in its notice that it may offer relief from penalties to people who engaged in transactions before yesterday and can show “reasonable cause” for underpayments or failure to file.

Bitcoin, the most popular digital currency, emerged from a 2008 paper written by a programmer or group of programmers under the name Satoshi Nakamoto.

Bitcoin Network

The Bitcoin network uses a public ledger to record transactions made under pseudonyms, a technological breakthrough that allows purchases and sales without using a trusted third party, such as Visa Inc. or Western Union (WU) Co.

Powerful computers that record the transactions and guard against double-spending the same currency generate new Bitcoins, a process referred to as mining. Mining has made some early Bitcoin adopters wealthy in dollar terms.

Others bought into the currency in early 2013, before its price rose more than 50-fold to peak at $1,200 in early December. Bitcoin was priced at $581.86 at 8:05 p.m. New York time yesterday, according to the Coindesk Bitcoin Price Index.

In March 2013 the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, like the IRS a part of the Treasury Department, acknowledged digital currencies like Bitcoin are fundamentally different than dollars. It said companies exchanging Bitcoins for dollars can be regulated as money transmitters.

That triggered a race among states, notably New York and California , to ascertain how or if their laws apply, since states typically license money transmitters. The Bitcoin industry has been frustrated that parts of the U.S. government are regulating the virtual currency in different ways.

No ‘Input’

“You see guidance from on high with no public input, which is unfortunate,” said Patrick Murck, general counsel for the Bitcoin Foundation.

The IRS ruling means Bitcoin investors will be treated like stock investors. They must determine their basis, or cost paid, for the Bitcoins, so they can tell whether a particular transaction results in a gain or a loss.

Someone who bought a Bitcoin for $400 and sold it for $500 would have $100 in capital gains.

Bitcoins held for more than a year and then sold would face the lower tax rates applicable to long-term capital gains — a maximum of 23.8 percent. That compares with a 43.4 percent top rate on property sold within a year of purchase and the 39.6 percent top rate that applies to other types of income.

Capital Losses

For investors with losses, U.S. tax law allows taxpayers to subtract capital losses from any capital gains.

Beyond that, they also can subtract as much as $3,000 of capital losses a year from ordinary income.

If Bitcoin were treated as a foreign currency, ordinary — not capital gains — tax rates would apply. Losses would be easier to deduct against ordinary income, however.

As with stocks, Bitcoin dealers will be subject to different rules that won’t allow for capital gains treatment.

Bitcoin miners will have to report their earnings as taxable income with a value equal to the worth on the day it was mined. They would use that as their cost basis and then pay gains or record losses when they sell or exchange the Bitcoins.

If they mine as part of a business, they’d have to pay payroll taxes as well.

The IRS will require information reporting similar to how the tax agency receives notification of stock transactions and payments to independent contractors.

It comes less than three months after National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson called on the IRS to issue taxpayer guidance on digital currency transactions.

‘Government’s Responsibility’

“It is the government’s responsibility to inform the public about the rules they are required to follow,” Olson, who runs an independent office within IRS, wrote in her annual report to Congress in January. “The lack of clear answers to basic questions such as when and how taxpayers should report gains and losses on digital currency transactions probably encourages tax avoidance.”

Charles Allen, chief executive officer of BitcoinShop Inc., an online marketplace, said he’d like to see the IRS reconsider its decision as virtual currencies develop.

“The implications this decision will have on the Bitcoin ecosystem are far reaching, and will be burdensome for both individual users of Bitcoins, Bitcoin-focused business and for the general adoption of virtual currencies,” he said, adding that Bitcoin users will adapt to the rules.

To contact the reporters on this story: Richard Rubin in Washington at rrubin12@bloomberg.net ; Carter Dougherty in Washington at cdougherty6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net Don Frederick

Source: Bloomberg.net. “Bitcoin Currency Use Impeded by IRS Property Treatment”. By Richard Rubin and Carter Dougherty. March 26, 2014.

Photo Credit: George Frey. Bloomberg.net.

BBB on Seniors: Be aware of scams during tax season

Tax season is upon us once again and there are a number of tax scams preying upon people’s fears of making a tax return mistake or appeal to their desire to get a bigger refund. Every year, the IRS issues its list of the dirty dozen worst tax scams. These scams appear online, by email and in person. In some cases, taxpayers can’t even trust their tax preparers.

If you become a victim of a scam you can also find yourself in real trouble with the IRS. After the tax con artist has compromised your personal data and taken some, if not all, of your tax refund, you could face significant penalties and interest for not filing a proper tax return or not paying what you legally owe.

Here is a list of this year’s top tax tricks. Pay attention so you do not become a tax scam victim. This countdown concludes with the worst of them all.

Misuse of trusts

Trusts can be valuable legal arrangements to deal with many complex family, financial and tax issues. However, trusts designed solely to hide assets from the IRS are illegal. Beware of a trust that promises to reduce the amount of income subject to tax, offers deductions for personal expenses or claims to lower estate or gift taxes. Trusts can be complicated, so don’t take the word of a stranger offering to set up one that will reduce your tax bill. Find an attorney or other trained tax professional who can help you establish a proper, legal trust.

Abusive tax structures

This is a generally inclusive category for good reason. These types of tax schemes encompass multiple flow-through entities. Basically, reports the IRS, the tax avoidance involves various business arrangements – limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships and international business companies are among the most common – that utilize foreign financial accounts, offshore credit and debit cards, and other similar instruments.

Such schemes are helped by the financial secrecy laws of some foreign jurisdictions and the availability of credit and debit cards issued from offshore financial institutions. The IRS Criminal Investigation Unit targets not only the criminals who set up these elaborate schemes, but also the individuals who knowingly participate in abusive tax schemes.

Frivolous arguments

The IRS refers to various claims to avoid filing and paying taxes as “frivolous arguments.” A popular claim is that return filing is voluntary. It’s not. In fact, the IRS has tougher penalties for not filing than it does for not paying taxes owed.

Then there’s the argument that wages, tips and other compensation received for personal services are not income. Please check the dictionary along with the tax code. Money received via whatever method is income. And it is called an income tax.

Others contend that the United States consists only of the District of Columbia, federal territories and federal enclaves – and only those U.S. citizens must file a return. The states and their residents that receive federal assistance disagree.

These are only a few of the frivolous tax arguments that anti-tax advocates use to encourage taxpayers to avoid filing and paying taxes. The IRS has a 63-page list of them that you should check before falling for these scams.

False income, expenses, exemptions

Most tax cheats report less income than they make, so their tax liability will be less. But in some cases, a taxpayer needs more money to get a tax break’s maximum benefit.

The IRS reports it regularly sees fraudulent income inflating by individuals seeking a refundable tax credit, such as the earned income tax credit, for which they otherwise don’t qualify. Credits prompt such unscrupulous acts because they are better tax breaks than deductions. A deduction lowers taxable income, while a credit lowers the actual tax bill dollar for dollar. Refundable credits, as the name indicates, allows filers who don’t owe tax to get a refund.

Other tax con artists file excessive claims for relatively uncommon tax breaks, such as the fuel tax credit. This is designed to help farmers and, similarly, taxpayers who use fuel for off-highway business purposes.

The key to avoid this common 2014 tax scam is to accurately report your taxable income and expenses. If you don’t, you could face interest on unpaid taxes, penalties that could be as much as $5,000 and possible criminal prosecution.

Bogus charitable organizations

The tax code offers benefits for philanthropic taxpayers. It does not, however, reward those who set up improper nonprofit groups or illegally donate to them. Unfortunately, when bad things happen, bad people take advantage, tax and otherwise. That’s why when there are significant natural disasters, con artists come out in droves.

They impersonate charities to get money or private information from well-intentioned taxpayers. And they use a variety of tactics. Some scammers operating bogus charities may contact people by telephone or email to solicit money or financial information. They may directly contact disaster victims and claim to be working for or on behalf of the IRS to help the victims file casualty loss claims and get tax refunds.

Return preparer fraud

The IRS expects around 60 percent of taxpayers to use tax professionals this year to prepare and file their tax returns. In most cases, those tax return preparers provide honest service to their clients. But, as in any other business, there are unscrupulous tax pros.

Questionable return preparers have been known to skim off their clients’ refunds, charge excessive fees for return preparation services and attract new clients by promising guaranteed or inflated refunds.

Choose your tax pro carefully. Be wary of one who does not have a tax ID number from the IRS.

Other warning signs that your tax pro might not be working in your best interest include a requirement that you split the refund to pay his or her preparation fee, refusal to give you a copy of your return, addition of forms to your return that you had not seen before, and the preparer’s reluctance to put his or her signature on the return.

Barbara Parrott McGinity , LMSW, is program director for the BBB Education Foundation .

Disappearing Deductions Cost Taxpayers

Changes to tax laws last year reinstated some income-based phase outs of some widely used personal exemptions and itemized deductions, leaving many taxpayers with higher tax bills.

Hardest hit will be those with higher incomes, who will be disappointed to see that deductions they previously claimed on their 2012 tax returns have been reduced or eliminated.

The Personal Exemption Phase Out

Typically tax payers are allowed to claim an exemption for themselves and any other joint filer and dependent on their tax return. The personal exemption is a defined amount – $3,900 for 2013 – which is used to reduce their income before figuring the amount of tax they owe. But starting with 2013 tax returns, single filers with adjusted gross income (AGI) in excess of $250,000 or those who are married filing jointly and have AGI in excess of $300,000 will be subject to a phase out of their personal exemptions.

The phase out of the personal exemption works like this. For every $2,500 of AGI (or portion) above $250,000 ($300,000 for married filing jointly), the $3,900 per-person personal exemption amount is reduced by 2%. For married couples, personal exemptions are fully phased out once their AGI exceeds about $422,000, and for single filers their personal exemptions are phased out when their AGI exceeds about $372,000.

Here is an example of how this might affect a taxpayer:

If you are in the 35 percent federal tax bracket, the loss of each $3,900 personal exemption increases your taxes by $1,365. If you want to know how your tax return is impacted, look at line 42 of Form 1040, to see the amount of the personal exemptions you are allowed to claim on your tax return and compare that to the amount that results by multiplying $3,900 by line six (which is the number of personal exemptions you are allowed to claim.)

Source: CBS Money Watch. ” Disappearing Deductions Cost Taxpayers “. By Ray Martin.

Taking Advantage of Tax Deductions

If ever there was a year to look for deductions to your tax bill, this is it. The reason? Millions of Americans will be paying more because of higher tax levels imposed by Obamacare and the ironically named American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. But even if you aren’t subject to the higher rates, it still pays to get all the breaks you can.

  • PRIVATE MORTGAGE INSURANCE. The home mortgage interest deduction is a perennial favorite of homeowners and while that deduction is now on a phase out schedule for high earners, others may benefit from the private mortgage interest deduction. PMI is an insurance policy that lenders require if you can’t make a 20 percent downpayment on a home. And, 2013 is the last year you’ll be able to claim the deduction unless Congress changes its mind.

You’ll find the amount of PMI you paid on your bank’s mortgage interest form 1098. The break is available to homeowners who took out their mortgage after Jan. 1, 2007.

And, like a lot of deductions, this one has income phase outs too. The sweet spot for this break is an adjusted gross income below $109,000.

  • CARING FOR A DEPENDENT PARENT. This is more complicated than it sounds, but if you can claim a parent as a dependent, you can save on taxes. Your parent must live with you and get more than half of his or her support from you. Keep in mind the parent’s earnings must be less than the tax exemption level. The devil is in the details with this one, and you should consult a tax professional. But if you meet the requirements, you’ll be able to claim an added personal exemption on your income tax return.

An added plus, any medical expenses you pay for that parent can contribute to the threshold for deducting medical costs. To meet that threshold, you have to spend 10 percent or more of your adjusted gross income on medical expenses. (That threshold increased from 7.5 percent last year.

  • COLLEGE LOAN INTEREST. Parents struggling with the high cost of education will find they can deduct up to $2,500 of annual interest on loans to pay for college. Income phase outs exist, naturally, so high earners might want to consider taking out a home-equity loan instead, which in most cases, will allow you to deduct interest.
  • HOME EQUITY LOAN INTEREST. You probably know that mortgage interest is deductible. Interest on mortgage debt up to $1 million is deductible, but phases out at higher income levels. Interest on home-equity loans totaling up to $100,000 also is deductible, no matter what you do with the money.
  • JOB SEARCH. If you were looking for a job last year as millions of Americans were, the costs of that job search is deductible. File them under miscellaneous expenses. You don’t have to be successful to claim the deductions. If you do land a new gig, you can also claim relocation expenses for the new job. Consult a pro to determine exactly what you can deduct.

There are more deductions — many more — but you should be aware that some of them are IRS audit bait. Here are a few of the deductions that might get you a second look, if not an audit:

  • Home office deductions. This one draws attention especially if you claim a salaried income.
  • Non-cash charitable donations, especially if you donate a car to a charity.
  • Earned income tax credit. This benefit for low-wage earners is often abused and the IRS will take a close look.

When it comes to deductions, one of the things IRS auditors keep in mind is just how you stack up with other taxpayers. CCH Inc. recently calculated average deductions, and while you shouldn’t use these as a hard and fast guide to your own tax return, it makes sense to have a general idea of what people in your income bracket pay. For example, folks with an income range of $50,000 to $100,000, claim medical expenses of $7,312 interest of $9,320 and charitable contributions of $2,815. These households pay federal taxes of $6,111.

So the point, here, isn’t to discourage you from the taking all the breaks that are due to you. In fact, I say take absolutely everything you are eligible for. The IRS expects nothing less.

Source: Fox Business. “Taking Advantage of Tax Deductions”. By Gerri Willis. March 12, 2014.

IRS Steps Up Tax Crime Enforcement and Convictions

The Internal Revenue Service has significantly increased its enforcement actions against tax criminals and its rate of convicting them, according to a new report from the IRS’s Criminal Investigation unit.

The CI unit increased by 12.5 percent the number of investigations it initiated in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013, compared to the prior year, and increased prosecution recommendations by nearly 18 percent. CI initiated 5,314 cases and recommended 4,364 cases for prosecution. These increases occurred at a time when agent resources decreased more than 5 percent, largely due to budget cuts at the agency.

Meanwhile, convictions rose more than 25 percent compared to the prior year. The conviction rate for fiscal 2013 was 93 percent.

“The conviction rate is especially important because it reflects the quality of our case work, our teamwork with law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and it represents an increase over 2011 and 2012,” said IRS chief of criminal investigation Richard Weber in a statement.

In stepping up the fight against identity theft, CI initiated over 1,400 investigations, according to the report, and recommended prosecution of over 1,250 people who were involved in identity theft crimes during fiscal year 2013.

CI is also an active partner in more than 35 Identity Theft Task Forces, the report pointed out, where the unit works side-by-side with federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies to combat the threat of identity threat. One of those task forces, the Tampa Bay Identity Theft Alliance, was recently recognized as the 2013 Task Force of the Year by the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators for investigative excellence and outstanding public service. The Tampa Bay Identity Theft Alliance was formed last year and comprises 20 Tampa Bay federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

The report summarizes other IRS CI activity investigating tax crimes, money laundering, public corruption, terrorist financing and narcotics trafficking financial crimes during the fiscal year.

“Our cases involved individuals and corporations from all segments of society,” said Weber. “They led us into corporate board rooms, offices of public officials, tax preparation businesses, identity theft gangs and narcotics-trafficking organizations.”

Source: AccountingToday.com. ” IRS Steps Up Tax Crime Enforcement and Convictions “. By Michael Cohn. February 26, 2014.