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IRS extends amnesty program for tax cheats

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September 21, 2009

Tax dodgers who hid assets overseas will get a few extra weeks to apply for an amnesty program that has been flooded with applications ahead of the Wednesday deadline.

The Internal Revenue Service plans to announce Monday that the deadline will be extended until Oct. 15, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

More than 3,000 Americans have applied for the program, which promises no jail time and reduced penalties for tax cheats who come forward, said the official who was not authorized to speak on the record ahead of the public announcement.

The IRS is extending the Wednesday deadline to give a rush of applicants more time to prepare their paperwork, the official said.

The IRS long has had a policy that certain tax evaders who come forward before they are contacted by the agency usually can avoid jail time as long as they agree to pay back taxes, interest and hefty penalties. Drug dealers and money launderers need not apply. But if the money was earned legally, tax evaders can usually avoid criminal prosecution.

Fewer than 100 people apply for the program in a typical year, in part because the penalties can far exceed the value of the hidden account, depending on how long the account holder has evaded U.S. taxes.

But in March, the IRS began a six-month amnesty program that sweetened the offer with reduced penalties for people with undeclared assets.

As the initial deadline approached, the IRS was contacted by tax advisers from across the country requesting more time to prepare applications from a rush of tax cheats looking to come clean, the government official said.

The amnesty program is part of a larger effort by federal authorities to crack down on international tax evaders. In August, the U.S. and Switzerland resolved a court case in which Swiss banking giant UBS AG agreed to turn over details on 4,450 accounts suspected of holding undeclared assets from American customers.

The process of turning over the information is expected to take several months. But once the IRS obtains information about an international tax dodger, they will be ineligible for the amnesty program.

Publicity from the case, even before the agreement was announced, had a lot of wealthy Americans with offshore accounts nervously running to their tax advisers.

Lawyers and advisers from several firms have said they were swamped with calls from people hiding assets overseas. Their advice: Call the IRS before the IRS calls you.

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