IRS issues for tax season…for your reading pleasure

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Just in time for tax season, the IRS announced on April 4 that it will begin using private debt collectors pursuant to federal law enacted late in 2015.

The IRS said that it will begin this month sending around 100 letters per week to taxpayers who have accumulated years-overdue tax debt. If the process goes smoothly, the number of letters will be increased to 1,000 per week.

Outsourcing debt collection will likely provide scammers with new opportunities, so the IRS has provided some advice for the safety of taxpayers.

The taxpayer will hear from the IRS first by letter. The letter will provide the name and contact information for the debt collection firm. After that initial contact, the debt collection firm will send its first letter confirming that it will handle the case. Neither initial contacts will be by telephone.

At this point, only four firms have been identified:  CBE Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Conserve of Fairport, New York; Performant of Livermore, California; and Pioneer of Horseheads, New York. Each taxpayer’s account will be assigned to only one of these firms.

None of the firms will ever ask for payments to be made to anyone other than the United States Treasury. If a taxpayer is asked to make payment to anyone else, this is a scam.

In the case of mistreatment under this new program, taxpayers are urged to file complaints with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The IRS and Congress have indicated they will be monitoring this situation carefully.

On a related topic, real estate lawyers should be reminded that the IRS may issue a levy, which is a legal seizure, of a taxpayer’s property to satisfy a tax debt. When a levy is issued, it applies to real property, money, credits and bank deposits. A levy can also reach property held by third parties, such as retirement accounts, dividends, bank accounts, licenses, rental income, accounts receivable, the cash loan value of life insurance policies and commissions.

The IRS issues a levy only after it has exhausted other means to collect a tax debt.

From time to time, a settlement agent will receive a levy for a party involved in a closing. The taxpayer should be sent a notice in writing of the receipt of the levy and should be directed to consult with his or her tax advisor. Remember that a real estate lawyer who is not also competent as a tax lawyer should never offer tax advice. Typically, after the taxpayer has time to seek tax advice, the settlement agent should comply with the levy.

(If I received a levy, however, I would also seek my own tax advice prior to disbursing any funds!)

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Tax-related identity theft is on the rise

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Some safety tips for you and your clients

The dreaded tax day is fast approaching! Please be aware of tax-related identity fraud, which we are being told is on the rise.

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This fraud occurs in several forms. One scheme is to file more than one return using a single Social Security Number. The fraudster steals the SSN and other identifying information, files a return and receives the refund before the true taxpayer has a chance to file. (Or the true taxpayer is a lawyer who always files late.)

Another scheme involves calling the taxpayer to inform him that he owes additional taxes and will have collection actions taken against him. He can get off the hook by providing credit card information to resolve the problem.

A third scheme involves calling the taxpayer to inform her that she received wages or other income from an employer for whom she never worked. Again, she can resolve the problem by paying additional taxes via credit card.

In a similar situation not involving tax-identity fraud, my husband received a voicemail on his cell phone this week indicating a subpoena was about to be served on him either at home or at work and to avoid that subpoena, he could call a telephone number. He is a lawyer, so having a subpoena served wouldn’t be outside of the realm of possibility, but he was able to determine this was a scam based on very limited Internet research.

The IRS advises that anyone who receives a telephone call, letter or e-mail purporting to come from the IRS should call the agency directly at 800.908.4490 to validate the request. In other words, never contact the requester by the method indicated in the communication. Go directly to the source.

The IRS also gives some very common sense advice:  never give personal information without validating the source.

If you are a victim of tax-related identity theft, the IRS recommends the following steps:

  • Notify the IRS at 800.908.4490;
  • If instructed to do so by the IRS after the initial notification, go it its identity verification service website to report the incident.
  • If your return is rejected because of a duplicate filing, complete IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, available at IRS.gov.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends the following steps if you are a victim of identity theft:

  • File a complaint with the FTC at identitytheft.gov;
  • Contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place a “fraud alert” on your credit records:

Be safe out there, use common sense, advise your clients to use common sense, and get those returns filed on time, lawyers!

IRS issues urgent warning about W-2 phishing scam

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On February 2, the Internal Revenue Service issued an urgent alert to all employers about a W-2 email phishing scam. The scam was launched in 2016 but has been expanded this year, according to the bulletin, which can be read here.

The bulletin warned that cybercriminals employ a number of spoofing techniques to create an email that appears to originate from an organization’s executive. The email is sent to employees in human resources and payroll departments, requesting a list of employees and their W-2 forms. These forms, of course, contain identifying information including addresses and Social Security numbers.

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Last year, the scam targeted the corporate sector, but this year, the scam appears to be spreading to school districts as well as nonprofit and tribal organizations. Another twist is that the cybercriminals may follow with emails requesting wire transfers. Some companies have lost funds in addition to sensitive information. Some organizations report having received these emails in 2016 and 2017.

The IRS memo urges employers to be vigilant and to share this information with their payroll, finance and human resources departments. Organizations should report incidents to phishing@irs.gov with a subject line of “W2 Scam” and should file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

Individuals whose W-2 forms have been stolen should take the actions set out in www.identitytheft.gov or www.irs.gov/idenditytheft.  They should also file a Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, if a tax return is rejected because of a duplicated Social Security number.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said, “This is one of the most dangerous email phishing scams we’ve seen in a long time. It can result in the large-scale theft of sensitive data that criminals can use to commit various crimes, including filing fraudulent tax returns. We need everyone’s help to turn the tide against this scheme.”

Will Biltmore Estate’s Owners Get Their Fairytale Ending When IRS Is Done With Them?

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Biltmore EstateOne piece of real estate that fascinates most Carolinians is the picturesque Biltmore Estate in Asheville surrounded by the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. According to articles in Law360*, a trial is scheduled for February 24 in the U.S. Tax Court that may determine whether the property continues to be privately owned and operated or whether portions of the real estate must be sold to developers to pay taxes.

The estate consists of 8,000 acres, 75 acres of formal gardens, and the largest privately owned house in the United States. The 255-room mansion was built between 1889 and 1895, in the Gilded Age, by George Washington Vanderbilt. Mr. Vanderbilt intended for the estate to be self-supporting, so he established a forestry program, poultry farms, cattle farms, hog farms, a dairy and a furniture business.

IMG_3884[1]George Vanderbilt had one child, Cornelia, who married British diplomat John Francis Amherst Cecil. Mr. and Mrs. Cecil worked with the City of Asheville to open the estate to the public in 1930 to spur tourism in the area during the Depression and to generate revenue to support the estate. The Cecil family turned the aging estate into a thriving tourist attraction, now including an inn, a farm, restaurants, gift shops and a winery, among other money-making ventures.

Most national treasures are operated by governmental agencies. According to the Law360 articles, the Cecils believe The Biltmore should be given special consideration because it operates as a business venture causing no drain on federal or state governments.

At issue now is a stock gift to the Cecils’ five grandchildren reported on 2010 tax returns at $20.88 million. The IRS claims the stock is worth $95 million. The family believes the stock should be valued as minority interests in a going concern.  But the IRS argues that the asset value is worth more than the value of the going concern, so a liquidation value should be used.

Lovers of this historic landmark will need to follow this story to determine whether the preferred destination of more than a million visitors per year will remain available as a vacation destination.

*Biltmore Owners Say IRS Is Stonewalling $95M Gift Row, 1/11/2016; Biltmore Owners Battle IRS over $95M Stock Gift, 7/7/2014.

(The Estate’s website is the source for many of the facts in this blog.)