IRS Puts Reins on Stingray Technology

IRS Puts Reins on Stingray Technology

It will be Christmas time soon and thoughts often turn to gift giving and getting. For some, the gift they would like most is the latest high tech toy. This year one of the hottest tech gifts is the Hoverboard. Next year it could be a personal rocket ship. Boys will be boys, and they tend to enjoy imagining themselves starring in a James Bond flick with the latest technology at their fingertips.

The boys at the IRS are no different, although some of them are surely lamenting the potential limitations placed on their toy commonly knows as the Stingray. The Stingray is a cell phone surveillance device that can mimic a wireless cell tower, intercepting signals and giving the user private cell data of anyone in the area. Special agents with IRS Criminal Investigations have used this device since 2011 to track down some big time tax criminals.

Under pressure from the Justice Department, the IRS has begun drafting rules that would require their employees to obtain a warrant before using this controversial device. Of course a warrant requires a finding of probably cause by a judge, and if you’ve ever seen any crime shows on TV you know it’s a pain to have to get a warrant.

The IRS apparently has only one Stingray now, but they ordered a second one back in July. It hasn’t arrived yet, which I’m sure has the CI boys as anxious as 8-year-olds on Christmas Eve.

IRS Tougher on Tax Crimes

Today the Criminal Investigation (CI) division of the IRS announced the release of its annual report which covers fiscal year 2013.  Everything in this report suggests that the IRS is more aggressively pursuing tax criminals.  Here are just a few highlights:

  • Criminal investigations: 12.5% increase
  • Criminal prosecution recommendations: 18% increase
  • Criminal convictions: 25% increase

But the most shocking statistic is not even reflected in this short list.  Get this: the conviction rate for fiscal year 2013 was 93 percent!  In other words, I don’t think the IRS is going to recommend prosecution of a case that it isn’t almost certain to win.  Of course, the IRS’ interpretation of this statistic is that they just have top notch attorneys:

The conviction rate is especially important because it reflects the quality of our case work, our teamwork with law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices

~ Richard Weber, Chief of Criminal Investigation

The IRS is especially intolerant of identity theft (it boasts membership in over 35 identity theft task forces) and I am sure that this accounts for many of the recent convictions.  Some of the other tax crimes mentioned in this report include public corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, and narcotics trafficking.

If you are wondering / stressing about whether or not you will go to jail for failure to file a tax return or failure to pay your taxes, I still think the answer still has to be “you could be.”  However, this phrase picked from the IRS’ official Newswire statement is very revealing:

CI investigates potential criminal violations of the Internal Revenue Code and related financial crimes in a manner to foster confidence in the tax system and compliance with the law.

I don’t think its a coincidence that the first concern of CI is to “foster confidence in the tax system” — secondary to fostering voluntary compliance.  How does the IRS foster confidence in the tax system?  It is not done by nailing “small fish,” which would probably have the opposite effect.  It is done by high profile convictions.  The IRS is more aggressive with high-dollar cases and cases involving public figures; the kinds of stories that make the evening news.

Is Your Online Imprint Going to Trigger an IRS Audit?

In mid-April I noticed a rather innocuous news release on the IRS website in regards to some type of email policy. If it wasn’t so cryptic and fraught with legal positioning, I would probably have considered it with the same drab spun by the IRS press cycle on a daily basis. However, the statement was so obtuse, it required at least a Google search or two to decipher the precipitous for the need to publically proclaim their position on email surveillance.

Here’s the IRS statement from April 18, 2013:

“Where the IRS already has an active criminal investigation and seeks to obtain the content of emails from an Internet Service Provider, we obtain a court ordered search warrant. It is not the IRS policy to seek the content of emails from ISPs in civil cases. Respecting taxpayer rights and taxpayer privacy are cornerstone principles for the IRS. Our job is to administer the nation’s tax laws, and we do so in a way that follows the law and treats taxpayers with respect. However, to resolve any remaining confusion surrounding this issue, the IRS is reviewing its policy and guidance and will make appropriate updates.”

I don’t have a crystal ball or a microphone in the IRS headquarters, but I believe the precipitous for the statement was damage control based on numerous news stories circulating recently that the IRS was beginning to use more than the standard tax disclosures to catch you in a tax lie. It was reported that the IRS was acquiring personal information on taxpayers’ online activities, from eBay auctions, Facebook posts, credit card transaction records, and e-payment transaction records, to verify the information reported (or not reported) on your tax return.

It was reported that the new online surveillance policy was precipitated because the IRS is under heavy pressure to help the federal government out of its budget crisis by chasing down revenue lost to evasions and errors each year. According to Edward Zelinsky, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Yale Law School. “I am sure people will be concerned about the use of personal information on databases in government, and those concerns are well-taken. It’s appropriate to watch it carefully. There should be safeguards.” He adds that taxpayers should know that whatever people do and say electronically can and will be used against them in IRS enforcement. Be warned.

It is alleged that the IRS is going a step beyond law enforcement agencies that use openly displayed social media information such as twitter, facebook, and instagram to prove illegal activity by asserting there is no right to privacy in personal correspondence via email, facebook chats, twitters direct messages, and similar non-public online communications.

According to a blog post by Nathan Wessler on the ACLU’s blog, even though judges are holding that people’s emails are private communications (most notably in United States v. Warshak, a 2010 decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals), the IRS is going its own way on the matter, claiming that Americans have no privacy rights in any correspondence sent via the internet, so that the IRS has no obligation to get search warrants. It was the policy of the IRS to read people’s email without getting a warrant. Not only that, but the IRS believed that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to email at all. A 2009 “Search Warrant Handbook” from the IRS Criminal Tax Division’s Office of Chief Counsel baldly asserts that “the Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage, such as email messages stored on a server, because internet users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.” Again in 2010, a presentation by the IRS Office of Chief Counsel asserts that the “4th Amendment Does Not Protect Emails Stored on Server” and there is “No Privacy Expectation” in those emails.

I suppose the end result for me on this issue is the portion of the statement that reads: “It is not the IRS policy to seek the content of emails from ISPs in civil cases.” In my dealings with the IRS in non-criminal cases, policy has no president or consideration in a collection case. Therefore, you should consider your online footprint a fishbowl for IRS audit fodder.

An IRS January Tradition

On Thursday the IRS announced a massive nation-wide identity theft crackdown, and I believe I’m starting to see a pattern now. Around the end of December each year we tend to get together with our extended families to drink eggnog, decorate trees, exchange gifts, and engage in various other annual family traditions. Well, the IRS appears to have a tradition of its own, although far less jolly than ours. Each January the IRS gets together with the Department of Justice and the US Attorney to sweep the nation for tax cheats — not exactly the kind of party you want to be invited to.

Here are the results of this years’ festivities:

  • the “sweep” involved 32 states and 215 cities
  • 734 enforcement actions (2,400 total in fiscal year 2012)
  •  109 arrests
  • 189 indictments
  • 47 search warrants
  • visits to 197 money service businesses (i.e., check cashing joints)

Read about specific cases here.

There is no doubt the IRS is strengthening its identity theft prevention and prosecution efforts.  Last year there were only 69 indictments and 58 arrests.  Sentencings are also on the rise, and jail times are getting longer.

The IRS is spending an unprecedented amount of resources on identity theft.  Perhaps the best evidence is the dramatic increase in criminal identity theft investigations:

  • 276 criminal identity theft investigations started in 2011
  • 898 criminal identity theft investigations started in 2012
  • 560 criminal identity theft investigations started so far in 2013

I’m not sure how they would do it, but the IRS could probably do a better job publishing this information and these stats.  It’s great that they’re stepping up efforts to punish identity theives, and the timing is perfect (right as people begin getting their taxes done), but if it’s only the tax attorneys and other tax professionals who are in the know, I would consider it a big opportunity lost.

IRS to Sell Drug Cartel Horses at Auction

photo via

The Zeta drug cartel has a little IRS problem, and it’s no ordinary tax debt.

Zeta had been laundering drug money under the cover of a race horse ranch run by one Miguel Angel Treviño Morales near Oklahoma City.  The Criminal Investigation division of the IRS (CI) went in with other law enforcement to seize the property and arrest the suspects back in May, and now a judge has decided that the property will be sold.  Hopefully CI did not have to brandish any weapons in the raid.  Probably not, since it appears the bust went smoothly and without incident.  The IRS plans to sell 379 horses at auction November 1-3.

CI is a special division of the IRS responsible for investigating financial crimes and criminal violations of the Internal Revenue Code.  CI targets both “legal source” and “illegal source” financial crimes, including narcotics related financial crimes.  That’s why CI would be involved in the activities of drug cartels that occur on US soil.

These Mexican cartel families are so arrogant; they think they are invincible.  They just couldn’t resist using drug references in the names of some of their prominent horses.  Also, they do not appear to have been trying to keep a low profile since their horses were winning major races (and prize money) left and right.

Ironically, the last time I blogged about CI, I quipped (in reference to the fact that they don’t have many opportunities to use their weapons) that they aren’t chasing down drug dealers.  Well, I stand corrected.

Can We Trust the IRS with Guns?

"desk pop" from the movie The Other Guys

TIGTA recently audited and reported on the firearm policies of the Criminal Investigation (CI) division of the IRS and found them to be somewhat lacking.  Usually I like to focus on tax relief, but this has got to be the strangest TIGTA report I have ever seen.  I couldn’t pass it up.

CI special agents are a unique breed, to say the least.  They are like the offspring of two completely opposite carreers: one’s tools are a pocket protector and calculator, and the other’s are a bullet proof vest and concealed handgun.  These are probably guys who really wanted to be FBI or CIA but ended up at the IRS instead.  And, let’s face it, a tax attorney probably sees as much action as they do.  They aren’t chasing down drug dealers; they are apprehending people who cheated on their taxes or who are running from a massive tax debt.  They definitely aren’t firing their weapons on a regular basis, so it’s no huge surprise to me that the firearm policies are subpar.

Their firearms qualification passage rate is pretty high; that’s not the problem.  TIGTA’s report has more to do with CI putting in place consistent policies and consequences.  The scenario that really stood out to me was what to do when a CI special agent accidentally discharges his firearm!  The report states that this is not a common occurence, but according to the report, there are more accidental discharges than intentional discharges!

During fiscal years 2009-2011, there were a total of 19 reported discharge incidents in all of CI; 8 intentional and 11 accidental.  Is is just me or does this report make CI agents look like a bunch of clowns?