BUENOS AIRES -- When auditors hit the streets here last year to determine how extensive tax evasion was, they found that 40 percent of the people registered had declared false addresses.
One taxpayer claimed to live in a soccer stadium, another in a church and a third in the middle of the River Plate, which flows by Buenos Aires.
"It's hard to collect taxes when you don't even know where people live," said Carlos Da Corte, the head of Argentina's tax agency.
Welcome to Argentina, the tax collector's nightmare.
In Argentina, it doesn't take a high-priced lawyer or accountant to avoid paying taxes. Most people simply refuse to pay -- and the government seems powerless to stop them. It would be tempting to say there's a tax revolt going on here, but so few people have been paying taxes for so long that it seems that the real rebels are the ones who do pay.
According to Da Corte, only 50 percent of the corporations and individuals required to file income tax returns last year actually did so. Of those who filed, only a small number paid taxes.
Da Corte says he doesn't know how much tax evasion costs the government every year. The tax agency has only recently begun to computerize its tax collection system and has but 1,300 auditors, so it can catch up with only a small percentage of tax cheats.
"I just throw my tax assessment away every year," said one businessman. "I prefer to pay when the government offers a tax amnesty. It's a lot cheaper that way."
Da Corte said the government has offered six tax amnesties over the past 40 years, the most recent last year.
While tax evasion is a joke to many Argentines, it gives headaches to government officials.
To cover public sector deficits, every year the central bank prints billions of dollars of currency. This has fed inflation. Since 1975, Argentina has had triple-digit inflation every year except one, including a 135 percent rate in 1987.
Lately, the International Monetary Fund has become interested in Argentina's woeful tax collection system because of its demand that the country reduce both inflation and its budget deficit before borrowing more money.
Argentina has a $54 billion foreign debt and must borrow another $2 billion or so this year just to meet interest payments. Its budget deficit is about 8 percent of gross domestic product, says Enrique Szewach, a leading private economist here.
Da Corte said President Raul Alfonsin is determined to close the revenue gap, which would lessen Argentina's need to borrow abroad.
The tax agency is hiring 1,000 new inspectors and updating its collection system. Congress is also in the process of approving a tax package that the government says will raise about $2 billion per year, thus reducing the budget deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product.
But tax lawyers and economists doubt that the government's efforts will yield as much money as promised.
Javier Gonzalez, a respected private consultant, questions how much money the new inspectors will collect. He said inspectors traditionally seem to raise as much money for themselves as for the government.
A manager at a downtown Buenos Aires leather goods shop said that when a tax inspector last visited his store, in November, he demanded a bribe to avoid reporting irregularities in the shop's books.
"We paid the bribe," said the store manager. "It was a lot cheaper doing that than having to pay the taxes we owed plus the fine."
Gonzalez and the store manager said this kind of incident is common.
That the government can't jail tax cheats also encourages evasion, tax lawyers say. Da Corte said a proposal to allow jail sentences is languishing in Congress.
Marcos Victorica, director of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a business-financed think tank, said the soon-to-be-approved tax package will increase evasion by pushing even more people into Argentina's informal economy, already one of the world's biggest.
The informal, or underground, economy is the flip side of tax evasion, where people buy and sell goods with cash or through barter to avoid leaving paper trails.
To keep the government unaware of their activities, companies keep two sets of books, Gonzalez says.
The leather goods store manager said his shop reported sales of $7,000 to the government while the actual figure was $21,000.
By underreporting sales, a common practice, the store owner and employees reduced their social security taxes by 67 percent and the shop cut sales tax payments by a similar amount.
Victorica traces the roots of tax evasion here to the 1940s and '50s, when president Juan Peron nationalized dozens of foreign-owned companies in creating the state-controlled economy that still exists.
Over the years, according to Victorica, the payrolls of the state monopolies became bloated and public services declined.
Power lines short-circuit when the weather is hot, and heating gas often does not flow in the winter. Telephones regularly don't work, and it can take seven years to obtain a new telephone.
"In the United States, people don't like to pay taxes, but they do because they feel like they get something in return," said Josefina Nevares, a Buenos Aires housewife. "Here, because government services are so bad, we think that only a fool willingly pays taxes."