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7 Ways to Avoid an IRS Audit

Best ways to reduce your chances of getting your 2013 return questioned

By Jonelle Marte | MarketWatch | August 22, 2014

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.) 

It’s the 1 percent no one wants to be a part of: the share of Americans who get audited.
 
The Internal Revenue Service is tracking down people who may be shorting the tax man by understating their income, exaggerating tax breaks and skipping out on other tax liabilities. And it isn’t just the rich and famous that agents are going after. Six percent of the IRS audits conducted on individuals in 2012 were for people who made between $200,000 and $1 million, according to IRS data.

Taxpayers can get flagged for forgetting important forms, mixing up numbers and erroneously claiming tax breaks. Sometimes, one mistake can open the door for the IRS to take a closer look at the rest of the return, tax pros say. “You don’t want to go through that headache,” says Paul Gevertzman, a partner at Anchin, Block & Anchin, an accounting firm in New York City.

(MORE: Don't Let a Scammer Steal Your Tax Refund)
 
That said, most taxpayers can stay in the clear if they report their income honestly and have the proper documentation. And while there is no such thing as “audit-proofing” a return, taxpayers can take steps to reduce their chances of facing extra scrutiny from Uncle Sam.
 
Here are seven things you can do to avoid getting audited.

Watch What You Tweet
 
Tax officials don’t just scour public records in their efforts to catch tax cheats. They also check Facebook, Twitter and other websites for clues that a person may be lying about the scope of their business and how much they make.

For example, some tax officials may take note if a small business owner boasts online about business projects taking place in multiple states but doesn’t report that income to the IRS and the respective state tax authorities, says Gevertzman. Likewise, taxpayers who claim they are having financial difficulties in an effort to reduce the taxes they owe should not post on social media about how much business is booming.

(MORE: Tips and Tricks for the 2014 Tax Season)

The IRS says audit decisions are based on the information taxpayers provide on their returns, not what they post on social media. The agency, however, might monitor publicly available information to help with an existing case. And agents are not allowed to use fake profiles or deceive people on social media sites to collect information.

Report All of Your Income
 
Most taxpayers know to report all income stated on their W-2 and 1099 forms, since the IRS has matching software that can help it catch income that was reported under a person’s Social Security number.

But even less obvious income should be reported, tax pros say. This includes income earned by self-employed individuals that may not appear on a 1099 form. People should also report gambling winnings, which casinos must generally report to the IRS, says Melanie Lauridsen, a technical manager on the tax staff for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. For instance, winnings of at least $1,200 from a bingo game or slot machine must be reported, according to IRS rules, as well as prizes of more than $5,000 from a poker tournament, though the requirements vary per game. (Gambling winnings can also be offset by losses if taxpayers can provide receipts and other documentation.)

People also need to report prizes they don’t realize are taxable, like the baseball fan who catches a home run ball that could be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, says Lauridsen. Any athletes bringing home medals from the Winter Olympics in Sochi may also have to face the tax man when they return.

Don’t Mix Business with Pleasure
 
Self-employed taxpayers need to be careful when claiming tax breaks and writing off business expenses if they don’t want to get a double-take from the IRS.

Taxpayers often forget, for instance, that only 50 percent of business meal and entertainment expenses can be deducted, and they must be identified as business costs. People looking to write off travel expenses should keep logs of business trips and visits made to clients to work-related travel costs from those incurred on personal trips.

And even though the IRS has introduced a simplified option for claiming the home office deduction, the office still has to meet the main requirement of being used exclusively for business and of being the main place of business. That means that if the children are using the room to play games or watch TV, the office gets disqualified, says Lauridsen.

Pay Your Nanny Taxes
 
Families who find they need to hire someone like a nanny or a home health aide may be more focused on their daily chores than the IRS, but the decision could come with added tax responsibilities. Such workers need to be reported properly to the IRS and families may need to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes and to withhold the worker’s share of those taxes just like any employer, says Stephanie Breedlove, vice president of Care.com HomePay, a company that helps families handle payroll taxes and labor law.

The rules apply to anyone who was paid more than $1,800 last year or $1,900 this year. Often, families don’t realize their error until they’ve parted ways with the nanny and he or she tries to file for unemployment benefits and state authorities learn the person was paid off the books, says Breedlove. Those families then need to pay any back taxes and penalties owed and could be found guilty of tax evasion, she says.

Families should also avoid incorrectly listing the nanny as an employee of a small business they may own, which could lead to an exaggeration of business credits and deductions.

Exaggerating Charitable Deductions
 
Tax pros say that many taxpayers forget to write off furniture, clothing and other items they donate to charity. But claiming those items incorrectly or exaggerating their value could get a return flagged by the IRS.

Clothes and home appliances must be valued at their thrift store prices and not their original sale prices, says Lauridsen of the AICPA. “People have a tendency to be emotionally attached to their things so they have a tendency to over value them when they’re doing charitable contributions,” she says. Salvation Army and Goodwill offer guides to help donors determine the value of certain items.

Pricier items like paintings, homes and land need to be appraised at the time of donation. Donated cars, which are likely to be sold by charitable organizations, will be valued based on the price that the group gets for selling the car.

Don’t Try to Write Off Hobbies
 
Some people may try to write off losses they’ve incurred from a side business like horse breeding or a small business making and selling hand crafted toys. But the IRS requires taxpayers to show they’re going into these ventures with the intention of making a profit. If they lose money year after year, the IRS prohibits taxpayers from using those losses to offset other income unless they can show they made a profit in at least three of the last five tax years, or two of the last seven tax years.

The IRS also looks to see if taxpayers are making changes to try to make the venture profitable and if they depend on that income to live on. “ You’ve got to show why it’s still a business,” says Gevertzman. Those who don’t make a good case may be suspected of investing in the hobby solely for the purpose of creating a loss that could be used to reduce their tax bill—and they could owe penalties and interest for any taxes they underpaid in the past.

Go Over the Numbers One More Time
 
This sounds like a no brainer but the IRS caught 2.7 million math errors on tax returns in 2012. Taxpayers often make mistakes when calculating how much they owe and how big their refunds should be. Those blunders can get the attention of the IRS, which scans for deductions that seem out of line with a person’s income, says Gevertzman.

Some people who accidentally reverse numbers or make enter incorrect Social Security numbers and checking account information could also have their returns held up and their refunds delayed says Lauridsen of the AICPA. Many of these errors can be caught early or avoided through electronic filing. It also helps to use exact numbers, since rounded numbers may give the IRS reason to request more specific figures and documentation.

Jonelle Marte covers the economy, jobs and other personal finance topics for MarketWatch.com and WSJ.com