The IRS audits approximately 1% of all individual tax returns. This is one instance where taxpayers might benefit from a lack of government funding – the IRS simply does not have the resources to examine every tax return (last year over 144 million individual income tax returns were filed).
That being said, the chances of being audited increase depending upon various factors, including your income level, whether you failed to report taxable income, the types of deductions or losses you claimed, the type of business in which you’re engaged and whether you own any foreign assets. Mathematical errors may draw IRS scrutiny, but they will rarely lead to a full-blown exam. Here is a list of red flags that may increase your chances of drawing unwanted attention from the IRS:
1. High income tax bracket
Although the overall individual audit rate is about 1.11%, the odds increase dramatically for higher-income filers. IRS statistics show that people with incomes of $200,000 or higher had an audit rate of 3.93%, or one out of slightly more than every 25 returns. Report $1 million or more of income? There’s a one-in-eight chance your return will be audited. The audit rate drops significantly for filers making less than $200,000: Only 1.02% of such returns were audited during 2011, and the vast majority of these exams were conducted by mail. We’re not saying you should try to make less money — everyone wants to be a millionaire. Just understand that the more income shown on your return, the more likely it is that you’ll be hearing from the IRS.
2. Failing to report all taxable income
The IRS gets copies of all 1099s and W-2s you receive, so make sure you report all required income on your return. IRS computers are pretty good at matching the numbers on the forms with the income shown on your return. A mismatch sends up a red flag and causes the IRS computers to spit out a bill. If you receive a 1099 showing income that isn’t yours or listing incorrect income, get the issuer to file a correct form with the IRS.
3. Taking large charitable deductions
We all know that charitable contributions are a great write-off and help you feel great about yourself. However, if your charitable deductions are disproportionately large compared with your income, it raises a red flag. That’s because IRS computers know what the average charitable donation is for folks at your income level. Also, if you don’t get an appraisal for donations of valuable property, or if you fail to file Form 8283 for donations over $500, the chances of audit increase. And if you’ve donated a conservation easement to a charity, chances are good that you’ll hear from the IRS. Be sure to keep all your supporting documents, including receipts for cash and property contributions made during the year, and abide by the documentation rules. And attach Form 8283 if required.
4. Claiming the home office deduction
The IRS is drawn to returns that claim home office write-offs because it has found great success knocking down the deduction and driving up the amount of tax collected for the government. If you qualify, you can deduct a percentage of your rent, real estate taxes, utilities, phone bills, insurance and other costs that are properly allocated to the home office. However, to take this write-off, you must use the space exclusively and regularly as your principal place of business. That makes it difficult to successfully claim a guest bedroom or children’s playroom as a home office, even if you also use the space to do your work. “Exclusive use” means that a specific area of the home is used only for trade or business, not also for the family to watch TV at night. Don’t be afraid to take the home office deduction if you’re entitled to it. Risk of audit should not keep you from taking legitimate deductions.
5. Claiming rental losses
Normally, the passive loss rules prevent the deduction of rental real estate losses. But there are two important exceptions. If you actively participate in the renting of your property, you can deduct up to $25,000 of loss against your other income. But this $25,000 allowance phases out as adjusted gross income exceeds $100,000 and disappears entirely once your AGI reaches $150,000. A second exception applies to real estate professionals who spend more than 50% of their working hours and 750 or more hours each year materially participating in real estate as developers, brokers, landlords or the like. They can write off losses without limitation. But the IRS is scrutinizing rental real estate losses, especially those written off by taxpayers claiming to be real estate pros. The agency will check to see whether they worked the necessary hours, especially in cases of landlords whose day jobs are not in the real estate business.
6. Deducting business meals, travel and entertainment
Schedule C is a treasure trove of tax deductions for self-employed people. But it’s also a gold mine for IRS agents, who know from experience that self-employed people sometimes claim excessive deductions. Big deductions for meals, travel and entertainment are always ripe for audit. A large write-off here will set off alarm bells, especially if the amount seems too high for the business. Agents are on the lookout for personal meals or claims that don’t satisfy the strict substantiation rules. To qualify for meal or entertainment deductions, you must keep detailed records that document for each expense the amount, the place, the people attending, the business purpose and the nature of the discussion or meeting. Also, you must keep receipts for expenditures over $75 or for any expense for lodging while traveling away from home.
7. Claiming 100% business use of a vehicle
When you depreciate a car, you have to list on Form 4562 what percentage of its use during the year was for business. Claiming 100% business use of an automobile is a major red flag for IRS auditors. They know that it’s extremely rare for an individual to actually use a vehicle 100% of the time for business, especially if no other vehicle is available for personal use. IRS agents are trained to focus on this issue and will scrutinize your records. Make sure you keep detailed mileage logs and precise calendar entries for the purpose of every road trip. Sloppy recordkeeping makes it easy for the revenue agent to disallow your deduction. As a reminder, if you use the IRS’ standard mileage rate, you can’t also claim actual expenses for maintenance, insurance and other out-of-pocket costs.
8. Writing off a loss for a hobby activity
Your chances of “winning” the audit lottery increase if you have wage income and file a Schedule C with large losses. And if the loss-generating activity sounds like a hobby — horse breeding, car racing and such — the IRS pays even more attention. Agents are specially trained to sniff out those who improperly deduct hobby losses. Large Schedule C losses are always audit bait, but reporting losses from activities in which it looks like you’re having a good time all but guarantees IRS scrutiny.
9. Running a cash business
Small business owners, especially those in cash-intensive businesses — think taxis, car washes, bars, hair salons, restaurants and the like — are a tempting target for IRS auditors. Experience shows that those who receive primarily cash are less likely to accurately report all of their taxable income. The IRS has a guide for agents to use when auditing cash-intensive businesses, telling how to interview owners and noting various indicators of unreported income.
10. Failing to report a foreign bank account
The IRS is intensely interested in people with offshore accounts, especially those in tax havens, and tax authorities have had success getting foreign banks to disclose account information. The IRS has also used voluntary compliance programs to encourage folks with undisclosed foreign accounts to come clean — in exchange for reduced penalties. The IRS has learned a lot from these programs and has collected a boatload of money ($4.4 billion so far).
Failure to report a foreign bank account can lead to severe penalties, and the IRS has made this issue a top priority. Make sure that if you have any such accounts, you properly report them when you file your return.
11. Engaging in currency transactions
The IRS gets many reports of cash transactions in excess of $10,000 involving banks, casinos, car dealers and other businesses, plus suspicious-activity reports from banks and disclosures of foreign accounts. A report by Treasury inspectors concluded that these currency transaction reports are a valuable source of audit leads for sniffing out unreported income. The IRS agrees, and it will make greater use of these forms in its audit process. So if you make large cash purchases or deposits, be prepared for IRS scrutiny. Also, be aware that banks and other institutions file reports on suspicious activities that appear to avoid the currency transaction rules (such as persons depositing $9,500 in cash one day and an additional $9,500 in cash two days later).
12. Taking higher-than-average deductions
If deductions on your return are disproportionately large compared with your income, the IRS may pull your return for review. But if you have the proper documentation for your deduction, don’t be afraid to claim it. There’s no reason to ever pay the IRS more tax than you actually owe.