WASHINGTON - The Internal Revenue Service has recouped more than $5.5 billion under a series of programs that offered reduced penalties and no jail time to people who voluntarily disclosed assets they were hiding overseas, government investigators said Friday.
In all, more than 39,000 tax cheats have come clean under the programs.
But there's more.
Government investigators suspect that thousands of other taxpayers have quietly started reporting foreign accounts without paying any penalties or interest. The number of people reporting foreign accounts nearly doubled from 2007 to 2010, to 516,000 accounts, a report by the Government Accountability Office said.
The sharp increase suggests that some people are simply starting to report their accounts without taking part in the disclosure programs, the report said.
Some taxpayers try to avoid penalties through a technique the IRS calls "quiet disclosure," in which they file amended tax returns that report offshore income from prior years. Others simply declare existing offshore accounts for the first time with their current year's tax return, the report said. "If successful, these techniques result in lost revenue for the Treasury," it said.
Peter Zeidenberg, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper in Washington, said it's pretty obvious that people are starting to report foreign accounts that probably existed for years.
"I don't think you get an increase like that from people just all of a sudden getting the idea 'I'm going to open an account in Switzerland,'" Zeidenberg said.
Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller said catching overseas tax dodgers is a top priority. In a written response to the report, he said the agency is working to improve the way it identifies people trying get around the disclosure programs.
The IRS has run four voluntary disclosure programs since 2003. The last three - in 2009, 2011 and 2012 - have yielded almost all of the $5.5 billion in back taxes, penalties and interest. The latest program is still open.
The agency stepped up its efforts in 2009, when Swiss banking giant UBS AG agreed to pay a $780 million fine and turn over details on thousands of accounts suspected of holding undeclared assets from American customers.