The chances of having your tax return audited remained near historic lows last year -- at slightly more than 1 in 200, according to figures released yesterday by the Internal Revenue Service.
The audit rate for all individuals was 0.57 percent, down slightly from 0.58 in fiscal 2001 and substantially lower than the 1.67 percent rate of fiscal 1995 and 1996. Rates rose for higher-income individuals -- those with annual incomes of more than $100,000 -- to 0.86 percent, from 0.79 percent a year earlier.
The IRS reported that as a 22 percent increase. But the rate, less than 1 in 100, remained a sharp contrast to fiscal 1988, when it topped 1 in 10 for taxpayers at that income level. The audit rate for taxpayers with annual incomes under $100,000 was 0.54 percent last year, down from 0.55 percent the year before.
The rate for corporations with income of more than $10 million was 14.17 percent. That corporate rate has declined every year since 1995, when it was 25.77 percent. The rate for smaller businesses was 0.63 percent last year, up from 0.60 percent a year earlier.
An IRS spokesman said the contrast with the higher rates of past years is not as stark as it might seem. In recent years, the agency has greatly increased the number of steps it can take to check on taxpayers without actually doing what is normally thought of as an audit.
These include document matching, such as checking to see that amounts reported on W-2 and 1099 income statements jibe with the numbers on returns. Such documents also allow the IRS to spot people who apparently should have filed a return and didn't.
The agency also does other computerized checking of returns for problems such as math errors, missing Social Security numbers and dependents claimed twice.
The agency last year sent out 8.3 million math-error notices, and, as part of its document-matching effort, contacted more than 3.4 million taxpayers it suspected of underreporting income or failing to file -- up 36 percent from 2.5 million in fiscal 2001.
The tax agency noted that its collection activity increased sharply in fiscal 2002. Instances in which the IRS used its most powerful enforcement tools -- levies, liens and seizures -- topped a million for the first time since the agency became the target of Senate Finance Committee hearings and a major restructuring in the late 1990s. These are procedures under which the IRS can attach or even seize taxpayer assets to cover unpaid taxes.
The agency's enforcement effort included more than 4 million levies, liens and seizures in fiscal 1997; in the year after the hearings that figure plunged to less than 500,000.
Collection efforts last year raised $32.6 billion, up $371 million from the previous year and the highest total in the past eight years, the agency said.
"Our tax system -- like the rest of our legal system -- is built on the concept of voluntary compliance. We count on people to willingly -- and voluntarily -- follow the law. When they don't, we will take enforcement action to uphold the law," acting IRS Commissioner Robert E. Wenzel said in a statement.
Mark W. Everson, President Bush's nominee to be IRS commissioner, told the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week that he intends to make enforcement a priority if he is confirmed as the agency's head.
"The first and most important thing I can do . . . is reemphasize the importance of" enforcement, and send that message out through the agency, he said. "I think that in and of itself will really help."