Category Archives: Tax Fraud

Empty Shells

I attended an out of town presentation not too long ago on investment and tax avoidance scams targeting well-to-do retirees. An especially interesting portion of the CFE presenter’s presentation (a recent retiree himself), focused on the use of paper or shell corporations and companies as tools by the perpetrators of such schemes.

Our presenter emphasized that regulators and other law enforcement personnel attempt to identify instances of fraud against retirees and others in order to prosecute the perpetrator and return the fraudulently obtained goods to the victims. However, such frauds tend to be an under-reported crime as victims may be embarrassed that they easily fell prey to the fraudster or may remain connected to the offender because of the engendered trust cultivated. Reluctance to report the crime can stem from a belief that the fraudster will ultimately do the right thing and return any fees or funds. In order to stop such fraud, regulators and law enforcement must be able to detect and identify crime, caution potential investors, and prevent future frauds by taking appropriate legal actions against the perpetrators.

He went on to say that one of the foremost reasons for the existence of the underground economy is to escape taxation, which in some countries can be as high as 51 percent of a person’s nominal income. Swiss bankers have a saying, “There would be no tax havens without tax hells.” As the rate of taxation increases, so does the cost of honesty. The higher the tax burden, the more incentive people have to attempt evading those taxations. Because it is illegal, tax evasion always involves financial secrecy.

Every few years the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) releases its top 12 most blatant tax scams affecting American taxpayers. Over the years the Service has repeatedly warned retirees not to fall for schemes peddled by scammers for the avoidance of taxes featuring the use of dummy corporations (or shells) associated with off-shore accounts in tax havens and emphasizing that there is no secret trick that can eliminate any senior’s tax obligations. Every tax payer should be wary of anyone peddling any of these scams.

The IRS aggressively pursues taxpayers and promoters involved in promoting abusive offshore transactions to wealthy seniors. Such promoters pitch seniors in the use of methods to avoid or evade U.S. income tax by hiding income through shells with accounts in offshore banks, brokerage accounts, or through other entities. Such actively promoted scams feature the use of offshore debit cards, credit cards, wire transfers, foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, and private annuities or life insurance plans. The IRS has also identified the use of shells in abusive offshore schemes including those that involve use of electronic funds transfer and payment systems, offshore business merchant accounts and private banking relationships.

But, as our speaker pointed out, shell companies aren’t just for big and medium-sized tax evaders anymore. They have become the financial and deception vehicle of choice for some of the most corrupt, dangerous and ruthless individuals and entities on the planet. Arms dealers, drug cartels, corrupt politicians, scammers, terrorists and cybercriminals are just a few of the most creative and frequent users of shells.

It’s also important to emphasize that not all shell companies are used for nefarious purposes; assurance professionals and investigators need to be aware that there are legitimate uses for these entities, such as using one as a holding company or creating a shell company (in name) to preserve future business rights or opportunities. Not every shell is involved in a criminal conspiracy, so it’s important to understand why someone might use a shell for criminal purposes.

The primary purpose of the use of a shell in a fraud scheme is like that of the fraud itself: to conceal fraudulent activity. This may include the nature, origin, or destination of misappropriated funds and/or concealment of the true owners and decision-makers of a criminal act or conspiracy.

In many instances, one shell company isn’t enough; fraudsters create networks. Dozens of shells, nominee directors, addresses and fake shareholders might be required to fully conceal a scheme or criminal plot. Big-time criminal conspirators will utilize shell incorporators to do the heavy lifting and help create a corporate web of disguise that can perplex and confuse even the best of investigators.

Shells can come in all different shapes and sizes, and the jurisdiction in which they reside can help further the concealment. Some fraudsters create shell companies for single uses and then discard them. Or they may use them repeatedly and have them change hands multiple times. They also may form what our speaker dubbed shelf companies and not use them for a period of time. A shelf company has a better chance of appearing legitimate and fooling a novice investigator or basic due diligence mechanisms because it appears to have existed longer than it really has. An older shelf could have a creation date predating any specific areas of investigative concern, which would allow it to engage in business activities when it otherwise couldn’t without arousing suspicion.

Given the intent, with a small sum of money, time and patience, fraudsters can set up a very elaborate web of shell companies in little time. But establishing the company name is only the first step in creating a shell network of deception. The company needs nominee directors and shareholders, often illegitimate, to further the concealment.

Scammers use nominee directors, and in some instances, other shell companies, to disguise true owners of entities while giving the appearance of legitimacy. Some nominees simply sell their names to fraudsters who use them on company documents. Others actually provide limited services for the shell companies such as processing corporate records, signing for company documents and forwarding mail. These nominee directors are the linchpins to linking and disguising international criminal organizations and operatives. Their use is so widespread that IRS conducted searches among entities frequently disclose nominee directors crossing paths. Some are even listed as directors for the same shell entities.

So what does our speaker recommend that individual CFEs do if we think that one of our clients may be unwittingly doing business with a nefarious shell?

— A shell company can be set up practically anywhere, but successful incorporators have learned to use particular countries and regions. Advantages can include lack of government enforcement or specific laws protecting corporate secrecy. A good source of a high-risk country list is the U.S. State Department’s annual list of major money-laundering countries.
— Use SWIFT codes – a SWIFT code is a unique identifier that’s associated with particular financial and non-financial institutions around the world. If you can identify the SWIFT code for the financial entities the suspected shell is dealing with, you might consider monitoring for any funds originating from or being disbursed to these banks or check to see if any of your client’s customers/vendors have bank accounts associated with these specific institutions.
–Review all available internal data that contains contact, banking, address and ownership information, such as vendor/customer data, wire transfer data, ship to/ship from locations for sales and purchases, purchase orders and invoice support documentation.

Look for :

• Information that doesn’t make sense given the nature of the business relationship with the entity.
• Entity information mismatch: address, phone, fax, ship to, bank, cell contact, etc. in different geographic locations.
• No discernible online presence when compared to the goods/services and the amount of money changing hands.
• The entity “representative” is associated with numerous other companies.
• Payment is made to or received from an unrelated third party. Review incoming/outgoing wire transfer documents.

Our speaker summarized that involvement with shell companies and those associated with them can be very bad news for any of our client companies. Fraudsters within your client organization might make use of them as vehicles of corruption or asset diversion. External perpetrators can passively use them as money-laundering vehicles against your client organization.

All assurance professionals should attempt to stay current with the latest types of abuse associated with the shell company model, trends in international corruption, fraud and asset diversion, and money laundering. ACFE training is, as usual, an excellent resource to do this. To the extent possible, try to screen information on your client’s customers, vendors and employees on an on-going basis. Cross-reference known bad actors and shell companies in the news against the entities with which your clients are doing business. Contact authorities if you and/or your client determine that it has become the victim of a shell company related scheme.

Overhanging Liabilities

Most experienced CFE’s are familiar with financial fraud cases involving the overhanging liabilities represented by artfully constructed schemes to avoid income taxes since multiple ACFE training courses over the years have focused on the topic in detail.  But for those new to fraud examination and to the Central Virginia Chapter, a little history.  Before 2002, accounting firms would provide multiple services to the same firm. Hired by the shareholders, they would audit the financial statements that were prepared by management, while also providing consulting services to those same managers. Some would also provide tax advice to the managers of audit clients. However, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) restricted the type and the intensity of consulting services that could be provided to the management of audit clients because the provision of such services might compromise the objectivity of the auditor when auditing the financial statements prepared by client management on behalf of the shareholders. Nevertheless, both before and after the passage of SOX, as subsequently reported in the financial press, both the major accounting firms Ernst & Young (E&Y) and KPMG were offering very aggressive tax shelters to wealthy taxpayers as well as to the senior managers of their audit clients.

In the 1990s, E&Y had created four tax shelters that they were selling to wealthy individuals. One Of them, called E.C.S., for Equity Compensation Strategy, resulted in little or no tax liability for the taxpayer. The complicated tax plan was a means of delaying, for up to thirty years, paying taxes on the profits from exercising employee stock options that would otherwise be payable in the year in which the stock options were exercised. E&Y charged a fee of 3 percent of the amount that the taxpayer invested in the tax shelter, plus $50,000 to a law firm for a legal opinion that said that it was “more likely than not” that the shelter would survive a tax audit. E&Y had long been the auditor for Sprint Corporation. They also took on as clients William Esrey and Ronald LeMay, the top executives at Sprint. In 2000 E&Y received:

  • $2.5 million for the audit of Sprint,
  • $2.6 million for other services related to the audit;
  • $63.8 million for information technology and other consulting services, and
  • $5.8 million from Esrey and LeMay for tax advice.

In 1999 Esrey announced a planned merger of Sprint with WorldCom that potentially would have made the combined organization the largest telecommunications company in the world. The deal was not consummated because it failed to obtain regulatory approval. Nevertheless, Esrey and LeMay were awarded stock options worth about $3ll million. E&Y sold an E.C.S. to each of the two executives. In the three years from 1998 to 2000, the options profits for Esrey were $159 million and the tax that would have been payable had he not bought the tax shelter amounted to about $63 million. The options profits for LeMay were $152.2 million and the tax thereon about $60.3 million.

Subsequently, the Internal Revenue Service rejected the E&Y tax shelter of each man. Sprint then asked the two executives to resign, which they did. Sprint also dismissed E&Y as the company’s auditor. On July 2, 2003, E&Y reached a $15 million settlement with the IRS regarding their aggressive marketing of tax shelters. Then, in 2007, four E&Y partners were charged with tax fraud. These four partners worked for an E&Y unit called VIPER, “value ideas produce extraordinary results,” later renamed SISG, “strategic individual solutions group.” Its purpose was to aggressively market tax shelters, known as Cobra, Pico, CDS, and CDS Add-Ons, to wealthy individuals, many of whom acquired their fortunes in technology-related businesses. These four products were sold to about 400 wealthy taxpayers from 1999 to 2001 and generated fees of approximately $121 million. The government claims that the tax shelters were bogus and taxpayers were reassessed for taxes owed as well as for related penalties and interest.

On August 26, 2005, KPMG in turn agreed pay a fine of $456 million for selling tax shelters from 1996 through 2003 that fraudulently generated $11 billion in fictitious tax losses that cost the government at least $2.5 billion in lost taxes. The four tax shelters went by the acronyms FLIP, OPIS, BLIPS, and SOS.  Under the Bond Linked Premium Issue Structure (BLIPS), for example, the taxpayer would borrow money from an offshore bank and invest in a joint venture that would buy foreign currencies from that same offshore bank. About two months later, the joint venture would then sell the foreign currency back to the bank, creating a tax loss. The taxpayer would then declare. a loss for tax purposes on the BLIPS investment. The way that BLIPS were structured, the taxpayer only had to pay $1.4 million to declare a $20 million loss for tax purposes. BLIPS were targeted at wealthy executives who would normally pay between $10 million and $20 million in taxes.

Buying a BLIPS, however, effectively reduced the investor’s taxable income to zero. They were sold to 186 wealthy individuals and generated at least $5 billion in tax losses. The FLIP and OPIS involved investment swaps through the Cayman Islands, and SOS was a currency swap like the BLIPS. The government contended that these were sham transactions since the loans and investments were risk-free. Their sole purpose was to artificially reduce taxes. Some argued that the KPMG tax shelters were so egregious that the accounting firm should be put out of business. However, Arthur Andersen had collapsed in 2002, and if KPMG failed, then there would be only three large accounting firms remaining: Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Ernst & Young. KPMG Chairman, Timothy Flynn, said “the firm regretted taking part in the deals and sent a message to employees calling the conduct inexcusable. KPMG remained in business, but the firm was fined almost a half billion dollars.

Because of the Ernst & Young and KPMG tax fiascos, the large accounting firms have become wary of marketing very aggressive tax shelters. Now, most shelters are being sold by tax “boutiques” that operate on a much smaller scale and so are less likely to be investigated by the IRS.  The question that remains, however, is to what extent should professional accountants be selling services that directly or indirectly abet even lawful tax avoidance which, as the ACFE tells us,  can so easily shade into what the IRS calls tax evasion?

It’s Not Just About Tax Avoidance

off-shoringRegister Today for Investigating on the InternetMay 18-19 2016 RVACFES Seminar!

The ACFE tells us that countries in virtually all parts of the world, but especially those located in the Caribbean and South Pacific, are commonly regarded as tax havens.  A tax haven is a country whose laws, regulations, traditions, and treaty arrangements make it possible for a person to reduce his or her overall tax burden. Secrecy is basically supplied by such countries in two ways.

1) Domestic bank secrecy laws: Laws which bar insight by outsiders;2) Blocking statutes: Statutes which effectively prevent the disclosure, copying, inspection, or removal of documents located in the host country in compliance with orders issued by foreign authorities.

Moreover, in many countries, legal depositions may not be taken on national territory in connection with judicial proceedings being undertaken abroad. Many countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Germany, Australia, Norway, and Canada have comprehensive statutes to guard their sovereignty from the extraterritorial reach of foreign authorities. Although these countries are not generally thought of as tax havens they have laws which can be used by the asset hider. In addition to asset hiding, some foreign countries have a legal, banking, or economic climate that provides an excellent site for laundering money. Historically, places such as Panama, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Switzerland, and the Netherlands Antilles have been associated with hidden bank accounts, fictitious corporations, and money laundering.

The most popular off-shore jurisdictions in the news recently are:

–Switzerland
–Panama
–Cayman Islands
–Netherlands Antilles

Countries like Panama with relatively small, open economies have often embraced the financial secrecy business as a way of promoting economic development. With some notable exceptions, these countries are geographically isolated with a narrow production concentrated on a few major commodities, usually for export. This tends to make them vulnerable to adverse climatic conditions and international market development. It also limits their ability to produce an adequate domestic market, invest in an infrastructure, attract foreign direct investment, and gain access to a diversified mix of importers and exporters.

It’s important for CFE’s to understand the general concept of a financial center with regard to financial havens.  Financial centers are of two types:

–A functional center is defined as country where transactions are actually undertaken and the value added is created in the design and delivery of financial services. Examples of functional centers include New York, London, Singapore, Bahrain, and Hong Kong.
–A booking center is defined as a country where transactions are recorded but the value added involved is actually created elsewhere. Examples in this category include Panama, the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Seychelles, and Vanuatu.

Accordingly, the ACFE classifies the tax havens of the world into four broad categories:

No Tax Havens – these countries have no income, capital gains or wealth taxes. It’s legal to incorporate and/or form a trust. The governments of these countries do earn revenue from corporate registration fees, annual fees and a charge on the value of corporate shares. Examples of “no tax” havens are the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Nauru, the Turks, Caicos and Vanuatu.

No Tax on Foreign Income Havens – These countries impose income taxes, but only on locally derived income. Any income earned from foreign sources that involves no local business activity (apart from simple housekeeping and bookkeeping matters) is exempt from taxation. There are two types of “no tax on foreign income” havens. Those that:

–allow corporations to conduct both internal and external business, taxing only the income from internal sources;
–require a decision at the time of incorporation as to whether the company will conduct local business or will act only as a foreign corporation. If the company elects the latter option, it will be exempt from taxation. If it chooses to conduct local business, it incurs the appropriate tax liabilities. Examples are Panama, Liberia, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, Costa Rica and Hong Kong.

Low Tax Havens – These are countries that impose some income tax on company income, wherever it is earned. However, most have double taxation agreements with “high tax” countries. This agreement can reduce the withholding tax on the income derived from a high tax country by local corporations. Examples of “low tax” havens are Cypress, the British Virgin Islands and the Netherlands Antilles.

Special Tax Havens – Special tax havens are countries that impose all or most of the usual taxes, but either allow concessions to certain types of companies, or allow specialized types of corporate organizations such as the flexible corporate arrangements offered by Liechtenstein. Tax havens offering special privileges for holding companies are Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Austria.

Understanding the role of tax havens, involves distinguishing between two basic sources of income:

–Return on labor
–Return on capital

The return on labor refers to earnings from salary, wages, and professional services – your work. Return on capital describes the return from investments such as dividends from shares of stocks; interest on bank deposits, loans or bonds; rental income; and royalties on patents. Placing “return on capital” income in certain tax havens can benefit the secrecy seeker. By forming a corporation or trust in a tax haven this income may become tax-free or be taxed at such a low rate that the taxation is hardly noticeable.

In the case of Panama, for example, off-shore banking and incorporation are a major source of revenue. It’s also a good country for laundering drug money through its banks. It was reported by the financial trade press some years ago that at one time $200-$300 million a month was laundered through Panamanian banks. Panama is one of the most effective off-shore havens for money-launderers, offering tremendous secrecy. As the Panama papers seem to bear out, its banking haven business has always been regarded as supplemental to its status as a tax haven.

Before asset hiders and money launderers can utilize off-shore secrecy havens, they must first establish secret off-shore bank accounts. The off-shore account provides asset protection because the existence of such an account will not readily be known by someone seeking to collect against assets. Foreign banks, regulated by their own authorities, are under no obligation to inform the fraudster’s home country bank examiners of the ownership of the accounts they hold. Even if the existence of an off-shore account does come to light, judgments from home country courts are generally invalid in foreign countries, so creditors normally have to get a judgment in the country where the account is located. This allows time for the individual to fight the action or, unless the court immediately issues an order prohibiting the transfer of assets, simply move the assets out of the account.

So why do fraudsters and others secretly move money off-shore?  Not just tax avoidance. There are many additional benefits of doing so, extending well beyond simple tax avoidance:

–Off-shore bank accounts allow an individual to invest in foreign stocks and mutual funds that are not registered with home country government agencies;
–In some instances, off-shore bank accounts offer more flexible customer options than home country accounts;
–The account can be used to profit from currency fluctuations, buy stocks from mutual funds, purchase foreign real estate, and earn the high interest rates available in many foreign countries;
–Foreign accounts are used to trade precious metals and other assets through the banking system;
–For U.S. citizens, off-shore banking income is not presently considered “subpart F income” on U.S. tax returns. The profits accumulate in the off-shore bank and are compounded free of U.S. taxes;
–Most off-shore banks allow transactions to be conducted by mail, fax, or telex.

Keeping money in off-shore bank accounts is generally considered to be a safe move. On the rare occasion when a bank fails, in most developed countries the major banks in the country will take over its business to ensure that depositors do not lose any money. Some countries even have stronger capital requirements for banks than the United States.

The off-shore financial safe haven sector constantly evolves and adds more attractive customer services over time, just like every other dynamic market place that wants to retain and grow its customer base.  To effectively investigate the role off-shoring plays in many high profile frauds, CFE’s need to realize that tax avoidance is often just the tip of the concealment iceberg.