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Feb 6, 2014

How to beat the taxman and stay out of jail

The Tax Office is targeting people who've missed a tax return -- even if it was a decade ago when they were in school. Here's what the ATO is up to and how to avoid a hefty fine if you've done nothing wrong.

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:

  • Beth got the letter for 2004, when she was 18, in education and had no taxable income;
  • J has been ordered to file tax returns for two years more than a decade ago, when she lived overseas with a newborn;
  • D got the letter relating to a financial year a decade ago. He was 14;
  • Jenna from Perth was told to file a return for 2001 and 2002, when she was aged 14-16, at school and not working;
  • S recently got the letter for failing to lodge a return for 2012-13. “According to my agent the return isn’t even required until May,” she told Crikey. “I suspect this is the ATO’s new model of customer service under an Abbott government … it sounds like a scam all right — a government-initiated one.”; and
  • Alex, a lawyer, knows of 11 young lawyers who’ve got the letter, relating to about a decade ago. This was causing anxiety because a prosecution could end their careers.

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.”

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.

Some people told Crikey they delivered a “self-assessment” over the phone that they were not required to file a return, and the ATO updated their files.

And remember that the ATO’s Taxpayers’ Charter promises: “we will treat you with courtesy, consideration and respect … we will behave with integrity and honesty … we aim to provide accurate, consistent and clear information to help you understand your rights and entitlements and meet your obligations.” If you have a complaint, go to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

The ATO confirmed to Crikey that the letter is genuine, and lawyers were being “focused on”. “Our work is aimed at encouraging good habits with lodgement compliance,” a spokeswoman said. “The ATO routinely writes to taxpayers about tax returns that are overdue or not lodged.”

Crikey put to the ATO that it was targeting some people who were young and earned little or no income in the years in question. The spokeswoman claimed the ATO took into account if the person had reported taxable income the previous year, and if they had had tax withheld (or had received income from a trust) in the year in question. She noted that where a person received the letter but there was no “requirement to lodge,” the person had to give “non-lodgement advice” to the ATO.

She said so far this financial year, the ATO had imposed penalties in more than 30,000 cases of people failing to lodge tax returns.

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13 thoughts on “How to beat the taxman and stay out of jail

  1. Observer

    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?

  2. rossmcg

    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

  3. Yclept

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

  4. Scott

    “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.

  5. Scott Grant

    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.

  6. Observer

    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.

  7. Already Burnt

    … we will behave with integrity and honesty …

  8. Kevin_T

    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?

  9. Cathy Alexander

    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?

  10. David crikey25

    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.