How to beat the taxman and stay out of jail

Have you failed to send in a tax return for any year since 2000? If the answer is yes — even if you were at school at the time — watch out. The Tax Office may send you a letter threatening to fine you thousands of dollars or throw you in prison if you don’t file it right away.

But don’t panic. While the letter is not a scam, the Tax Office is trying it on in some cases and appears to have misrepresented the penalties. Crikey understands the ATO has new targets to reach on non-lodgement of returns. So read on to beat the taxman’s fishing trip for revenue.

In response to a tip, Crikey has heard from people all around the country who have received the letter. Some are upset or stressed. The letter says you’ve missed a tax return, names the years, and threatens you with a fine of up to $4250 — charged at interest of 9.59% per day — if you don’t “lodge immediately”. If convicted for failure to lodge, you could be “imprisoned for up to 12 months”.

While plenty of people who’ve got the letter probably did the wrong thing, may owe the ATO money and are ripping off society, some are being unfairly targeted. Some were aged 14-18 for the year in question and earned little or no income. Others were overseas. Some were never supposed to file a tax return.

The ATO is targeting lawyers and people with a role in the taxation system.

Here’s the letter sent to a reader, H. He missed tax returns for 2003, 2004 and 2005 — when he was in years 10 to 12, and earned no or little income. H rang the ATO and was told he must perform a “self-assessment”. “I wonder whether their time would be better spent chasing real tax evaders and cheats, rather than high school students,” H told Crikey.

We’ve also heard from:

Crikey tax expert Chris Seage says the letter is very strongly worded. “They should only be using those letters on taxpayers that are high-risk and high-wealth,” he said. Seage says if the letter is going to people for whom the ATO has no current, accurate evidence pointing to wrongdoing, then it’s bullying. Seage says the $4250 fine threatened in the letter is only for large corporations, not for individuals; “that letter is factually wrong.”

If you earned no income, you don’t have to file a return. If you earned under the tax-free threshold ($6000 until recently), you may have to.

NSW accountant Dianne Costin thinks the ATO is combing its files to target missing returns, some from a long time ago. “It can be really stressful for a lot of people,” said Costin, a senior associate with a chartered accountancy firm. Costin thinks the process is computer-generated, and the ATO is probably targeting people who have owed money in taxes before; “that’s when the big guns come out. They’re selective.”

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13 Responses

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  1. If only they pursued big tax cheats with the same vigour but small fish always seem to be on the ATO menu. How much tax did the tech giants Google & Apple pay in Australia again?

    by Observer on Feb 6, 2014 at 1:49 pm

  2. They don’t pursue big cheats because they hire lawyers and fight them, and it seems quite often win or settle for an undisclosed sum that is probably a fraction of what is really owed. Paying tax is optional for many people in Australia and dont expect that to change any time soon

    by rossmcg on Feb 6, 2014 at 2:36 pm

  3. The little poor guy is such an easy target, you only get hurt if you pick on the big guys…

    by Yclept on Feb 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm

  4. Here’s Costin’s advice for what to do. Phone the ATO, explain your circumstances and get a reference number. Ask for time to lodge without penalty. Then send a letter explaining your circumstances and quoting the reference number. The ATO may send you a tax return form, or a form for explaining why you don’t need to do one. The ATO may accept estimates of things like income. If you were overseas, attach passport information.”

    Oh, so use a bit of common sense!

    P.S Little fish sometimes turn into big fish.

    by Scott on Feb 6, 2014 at 4:50 pm

  5. I am fairly sure there are plenty of studies that show that most people want to do the “right” thing, even when they don’t, and that making it easy (and non threatening!) would enhance compliance in the majority of cases. I would be interested to know how much additional information and material is supplied with these letters. I know several people who would be emotionally disabled by threats, less likely to comply, and unable to seek further information.

    by Scott Grant on Feb 6, 2014 at 5:53 pm

  6. I think this hardline campaign from the taxman has the acquiescence of Abbott &Hockey. The taxpayers’s charter is not enforceable and the sooner someone in government gets the balls to legislate taxpayer rights and have the charter enshrined in law the better. Till then the tax system is heavily balanced to the taxmans side. The result? A system not respected by the people and voluntary compliance suffers.

    by Observer on Feb 6, 2014 at 6:04 pm

  7. LOL
    … we will behave with integrity and honesty …

    by Already Burnt on Feb 6, 2014 at 8:48 pm

  8. Dumb Question: If someone was, say, 14 or 15 in the quoted years, and only earned the pocket money that their parents gave them over those years, and just assumed the letter was a stupid administrative error, and did not bother to follow up the letter believing that it was inapplicable because they were a school student (or thought it had to be a scam because the “real” ATO does not tax school children’s pocket money)- would they actually face major fines, or potential gaoling for not responding to that letter?

    by Kevin_T on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:59 am

  9. The Insp General of Taxation did a review into the non-lodgement of individual income tax returns in 2009, which found there are 1 - 1.5 million people who do not file tax returns each FY who should.

    However, a broader question is whether we should keep the tax system’s reliance on self-assessment with annual tax returns? Some other countries have a more automated system which means fewer people have to fill out a tax return. Given that a lot of us have fairly simple finances, would it be smarter to simplify the system and place less onus on the individual? Most people I know who are hopeless with their tax returns are not trying to avoid paying tax, rather they are people who don’t like filling out forms / are disorganised.

    It’s been proposed that Australia simplify the income tax system. Could be a good idea?

    by Cathy Alexander on Feb 7, 2014 at 8:45 am

  10. So let me get this right, the ATO is targetting lawyers with this letter, and when they are getting they notification they are running around in a panic like headless chooks ?

    Doent these people have a law degree and presumably some level of intellegence ? If they are not actually working in the area of tax law (and unfortunately for most of us, too many of them are), surely they should quite easily be able look it up and see the relevant law and what they need to do.

    by David crikey25 on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm

  11. Whoever the current targets may be, most of us, I assume feel some sort of empathy for the lone individual confronted with a massive and verbally aggressive bureaucracy telling porkies. I am reminded of the Pastor Niemoller poem

    by Scott Grant on Feb 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm

  12. If they’re going after missed tax returns, can they start at the top and work their way down? That way we know their priorities lie in the right place.

    by Jimmyhaz on Feb 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm

  13. Hi David, the ATO is targeting lawyers, and also people who work in taxation themselves. No suggestion they’re targeting tax lawyers. The lawyers I’ve heard from haven’t been tax specialists.

    by Cathy Alexander on Feb 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm

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