Living Underground

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The first signs that the tide may be turning in the world-wide battle against corruption appear to be upon us.  Issues surrounding the growing international Panama Red movement and the scandal of secret money have thrown a spotlight on what’s called the underground economy.

The underground economy is a group of clandestine transactions that create financial value, but are conducted with the intention of escaping something — primarily taxes, but also revelation of bribes, government regulations, exchange controls, or criminal prosecution.  The ACFE has been telling us for years that the underground economy exists for four primary reasons:

— to escape taxation;
— to escape regulation;
— to escape prohibition;
— to further corruption.

Because all of these activities are illegal and the individuals involved in them want to escape detection, the underground economy operates on secret money. Economists have attempted to determine the exact size of the international underground economy, but have, thus far, met with limited success because the main premise of the underground economy is that income is not reported. In the early 2000’s, India, the United States, Canada, Russia, Nigeria, and Italy were believed to have the largest underground economies in the world. According to estimates, the underground economy in the United States has grown significantly, totaling as much as $2.25 trillion annually. Today, most observers in the United States estimate that ten percent of the actual Gross Domestic Product can be attributed to criminal activity.

The underground economy in the United States (as it does to the tax collection efforts in other developed economies) is undermining the effectiveness of the Internal Revenue Service, which is highly dependent on employee’s withholding taxes. If the IRS could collect all of the taxes that it says it is owed from the underground economy, then the current budget deficit would decrease overnight. The IRS has estimated that its tax gap, the estimated amount of taxes owed minus the amount collected, is around $600 billion in any given year. The gap number measures only a portion of the underground economy. Because the number is extrapolated from audited returns, it makes no allowance for criminal enterprises that report no income, and it even fails to capture some typical varieties of non-reporting. This gives just some idea how much the underground economy is costing the U.S. economy alone.

In response to these issues, the IRS developed the Criminal Investigative Unit. This unit serves the American public by investigating potential criminal violations of the Internal Revenue Code and related financial crimes in a manner that fosters confidence in the tax system and compliance with the law. The enforcement efforts of this unit include tax violations, money laundering, currency crimes, and asset forfeiture.

The Criminal Investigation Program Strategy falls into three interdependent categories: Legal Source Tax Crimes, Illegal Source Financial Crimes, and Narcotics-Related Financial Crimes. The Legal Source Tax Crimes Program Strategy addresses tax investigations involving taxpayers in legal occupations and legal industries. The Illegal Source Financial Crimes Program Strategy recognizes that illegal source proceeds, which are part of the untaxed underground economy, are a threat to the voluntary tax compliance system, and that failure to investigate these cases would erode public confidence in the tax system. The primary objective of the Narcotics-Related Financial Crimes Program Strategy is to reduce the profit and financial gains of narcotics trafficking and money laundering organizations that compromise a significant portion of the untaxed underground economy.

The foremost reason for the existence of the underground economy is to escape taxation, which in some countries can be more than half of a person’s yearly 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’s illegal, tax evasion always involves financial secrecy. And tax evasion, as the Panama Paper’s illustrate, transcends national boundaries due to the investigative and jurisdictional limits set by each country for revenue authorities. While there is a great deal of cooperation between international governments in matters of tax evasion, there are many loopholes that make overseas transactions appealing and profitable to the secrecy seeker.

The second factor that motivates the underground economy is the desire to escape regulation. Government-imposed regulations are often perceived as hindrances to the efficient flow of business. Regulations might affect prices, wages, returns on capital, exchange rates, and so forth. As with taxes, each time a new regulation is enacted, an economic incentive is created to find a way to evade it. In many countries, parallel financial markets, also known as curb markets, are the result of stringent financial controls. These controls also give rise to parallel foreign exchange markets involving currency smuggling and transfer pricing. All of this economic activity is conducted in secrecy and is neither taxed nor reported in official statistics.

Prohibition is defined as the forbidding by law of certain activities. Avoidance of prohibitions is the third reason underground economies exist. Prohibition is usually associated with criminal activities such as narcotics smuggling and sales, prostitution, gambling, and usury (i.e., the lending of money at excessive interest rates). Most of these transactions are made with cash and are therefore extremely difficult to detect and trace.

The final reason for the perpetuation of the underground economy is corruption. Corrupt activities include bribes on public procurement contracts, customs clearance, traffic violations, zoning ordinances and building permits, investment licenses, import and foreign exchange permits, allegations of consumption, investment, and infrastructure goods that are in short supply. As the current revolt of the Mexican people against corruption illustrates, bribery is commonplace in many countries and is pervasive among public officials. Despite official laws banning bribery, the practice is sometimes an intrinsic part of a country’s cultural, political, and economic system. In these places, it is tolerated or simply overlooked.

One of the most important services fraud examiners can render to their clients and to the general public is to increase awareness of the pernicious effect on economic freedom and liberty of the underground economy phenomena, not just in the developed countries in which we primarily practice, but world-wide.

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