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HMRC uses Google to home in on assets

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27th Nov 2013
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Revenue inspectors are increasingly turning to Google Street View as a monitoring tool to catch suspected tax evaders, according to UHY Hacker Young.

The top 20 accounting firm said, based on recent cases, that HMRC was using Google to try to prove people have undeclared income. Street View provides a kerbside view of homes and businesses, giving inspectors a quick way to assess a person’s lifestyle and see whether it matches declared income.

In one case, the firm revealed Street View was being used to provide clues as to whether a family was using a private school, thanks to the practice of advertising school fêtes on signs in parents’ gardens.

Roy Maugham, UHY Hacker Young tax partner, said: “HMRC believe there’s a big discrepancy between what people are earning and what they are declaring, which is driving a massive push to recoup some of the loss.

“They are using every possible bit of information that the internet is making available, and Google Street View is being seized on as a quick and cheap alternative to visiting someone’s home,” he said.

Officials are also looking for home improvements or expensive cars parked in the driveway as clues to earning levels.

An HMRC spokesperson told AccountingWEB Street View played a “small part” in its investigations into finding tax evaders: “We use Google Earth occasionally when an enquiry is already well under way to check very basic lifestyle factors. It has only very limited application and interest for us and is very much a secondary low level tool.”

“Our investigations have a greater focus in looking at an individual’s bank account, employment history and the value of their property,” they said.

The information collated is being stored on HMRC’s super-computer Connect.

HMRC added: “The computer system brings together unprecedented volumes of data, which our tax specialists and analysts are constantly evaluating for evidence of evasion, to identify those who are determined to cheat the UK of vital tax revenue. The vast majority of people and businesses play by the rules and on their behalf we are coming down hard on the cheats.”

However Maugham warned that there are limitations to relying on the information Street View provides: “Out-dated evidence could lead to HMRC making serious misassumptions about undeclared income, which innocent tax payers will then have to dispute.”

AccountingWEB turned to the community to find out if members had had any similar experiences of HMRC’s investigative work on the front line.

Many said there was nothing new in the Street View revelation.

"All that has changed is that in the digital world the old information plus more is now available at the desktop without diligent local tax inspectors feeling the need to drive past taxpayers' homes and see what sort of house they might have sustained on modest earnings,” said DMGbus.

Jennifer Adams referred to an article from the start of the year on known HMRC methods used to glean information.

“During Wimbledon fortnight, HMRC investigation teams apparently knock door-to-door to ascertain whether homes have been rented out or are being used as unofficial boarding houses. This information is then retained and checked when the property is finally sold,” she quoted from the article.

JCresswellTax added that HMRC should use any means possible to identify and catch tax evaders.

“I have to pay my tax, why should they be different,” she said. “All I would say is I wish they would embrace the technology in the same way to make our job easier!”

UHY Hacker Young also said that HMRC was monitoring suspected tax evaders’ social networking feeds to glean further information about their lifestyles.

Back in April AccountingWEB touched on the topic of social media and Google Street View being used to crack down on tax dodgers.

At the time Mark Lee suspected HMRC could be monitoring social media activity: “It's very easy on Twitter to set up a standard search where you can set up a separate column, and you can use Google alerts. I'm sure the Revenue uses that to find new people that are doing all sorts of things.

“If they've already got a question mark next to somebody's name, they can then have a look and see if they've got a Facebook page, and then their LinkedIn profile, to see if there are any clues,” he said.

Have you had any experience of HMRC using social media or Google Street View to glean information on yourself or a client?

Replies (16)

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ghm
By TaxTeddy
28th Nov 2013 11:24

More data please........

I can do no better than quote Ross Clark,

"It is a matter of deep regret that the Government refuses to learn the lessons of the world's first criminal database: a 'rogues' gallery' of criminals' photographs established by Parisian police in the 19th century.

When it was confined to the faces of a few serious offenders, the database proved highly effective: witnesses presented with the photographs quickly picked out the face - if any - which matched their recollections.

But as the number of faces on the database grew and grew as petty offenders were added, it became steadily less and less useful: the sea of faces was too overwhelming.

Today's database-builders don't seem to understand that the more the authorities watch us, count us and photograph us, the less they actually see."

See the full article at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1164291/ROSS-CLARK-As-report-condemns-government-databases--Big-Brother-wasting-billions.html

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By andrew.hyde
02nd Dec 2013 11:16

Google Street view

It's a good tool, and useful for navigating strange towns, but all it really tells you is whether a particular street is full of desirable properties.

If you find that Mr X has a large house, then perhaps he has a large declared income to go with it. 

Also of course, the houses of the seriously rich tend not to be visible from the public highway, either due to walls and hedges, or due to the fact that the driveway is 100 yards long.  Try checking out the Barclay brothers on street view!

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By johnjenkins
02nd Dec 2013 11:35

HMRC have always

used media etc. to track down fraudsters. No doubt they browse e-bay and the like, even face book and twitter could give them info. Link that to police files and connect, hey presto. Trouble is you need manpower to decipher everything. I really don't think it will make ant difference to the percentages, because only a certain amount of people are on the fiddle, and crikey if HMRC and the police don't know who they are by now then heaven help us. The real worry is that some jobsworth will notice a new conservatory and start an enquiry based on profit hasn't increased, where has the extra money come from?

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By The Black Knight
02nd Dec 2013 11:47

will it work? NO

another storm in a tea cup.

HMRC are notorious for ignoring information available to them.

the tax credits line have information on your mortgage payments so they can ID question you, HMRC then ignore that the mortgage payments exceed your income.

Fail to see how looking at a picture will help unless it ups the civil service jealousy motivator.

There are massive amounts of monies being laundered through Principle private residence Relief. Many moons ago this information appeared on your tax return, removed to facilitate laundering?

Buy a house, using mortgage fraud or large drugs money deposit, extend/improve it using large cash payment to builders, sell at a profit. Now your monies clean.

Builders always have nice houses having never spent a penny on them, some have had 11 or 12 in this fashion...HMRC have no doubt had a list of these addresses to assess frequency and the trade builder/electrician/carpenter will appear on the tax return. But no they could not picture it until Google came along.

Could it be that they all need I phones to do this effectively?

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By johnsonic
02nd Dec 2013 11:55

Used in an enquiry

I've been dealing with a Corporation Tax full enquiry and at a meeting with HMRC earlier this year the Inspector produced blown up images from Streetview as evidence. In this case it was to try and prove that the director's had use of company vehicles that hadn't been shown on form's P11d. Of limited use as I pointed out, the photo's show what was on the drive at a point in time 2 1/2 years ago.

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By The Black Knight
02nd Dec 2013 12:06

they do like their misinformation

johnsonic wrote:

I've been dealing with a Corporation Tax full enquiry and at a meeting with HMRC earlier this year the Inspector produced blown up images from Streetview as evidence. In this case it was to try and prove that the director's had use of company vehicles that hadn't been shown on form's P11d. Of limited use as I pointed out, the photo's show what was on the drive at a point in time 2 1/2 years ago.

They do like their misinformation.

We had an inspector chasing after a long since dissolved company because experian told him it was still live, had to show him the companies house print out (that they were not allowed to use, madness)

It could be that they think, while you are dealing with their fools errand you will trip yourself up and lead them to a discovery of a Carp. Or is it some other explanation?

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By Tim1
02nd Dec 2013 12:20

I`d better put my speedboat road the back then

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By Michael C Feltham
02nd Dec 2013 13:03

European Human Rights Act:

HMRC better ensure they are not in breach of the EHRA!

Has been known......

Devious snooping has been outlawed now for some time.

Such as lurking around the check outs of cash and carry warehouses to check who is  buying what, for how much, for cash.

A number of cases have already been mounted and HMRC lost.

 

 

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By Philip Hourglass
02nd Dec 2013 15:37

I use exactly the same method........ except that I also photo

Here is a picture of a modest residential house in Milton Keynes that I took a little while back.

The Fancy Toyota had replaced the M-Class Merc that is in the Google Street View photo, and that seemed to come after a BMW 2.7.

I chatted to the Honest Muslim Accountant neighbour of the man concerned at his Northampton Office, and we agreed that a Letting Agent has to be very, very successful INDEED to drive such expensive motors around.

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"The Man Concerned" turns out to have been trading while Filing Dormant Accounts, that were themselves were NOT signed by him as Sole Director, and also he is not displaying his Company Name at his HUGELY fancy MK Prestige Office, which makes sense; he "trades" from home. The Manager at the office refused to say who traded there, but was not on the "Directory List": "Data Protection".

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I have reported the situation to the Insolvency Service; Companies House, of COURSE, having said (Fraud Department) that it was not something that they could do ANYTHING about.

But a Google Street View Photo can speak a THOUSAND words, Ali.

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By The Black Knight
02nd Dec 2013 16:01

Not in the public interest

let me guess "not in the public interest" for Toyota drivers to pay their taxes.

or completing their accounts correctly "would place an unnecessary burden on the company"

Might be a dormant company and trading as a sole trader though.

Find a tenant and see who's name appears as agent on the agreement or where the rent is paid to!

HMRC tax evasion hotline?

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By Philip Hourglass
02nd Dec 2013 23:05

Yers, BK, I will also flag the issue to HMRC...

but on past experience that is one HUGE waste of time.

But I will discharge my civic and professional duty, and try to avoid grinding my teeth to nothing.

Yours, PH.

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At least I got my "Deposit" £4,950 back: I happily skipped the £120 "fee".

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By Lears' Fool
03rd Dec 2013 07:49

Information in the public domain

 

All old news - really, it started with Friends Reunited and has been going on ever since. 

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By andrew.hyde
04th Dec 2013 12:39

Next time you're bored

Try to find the blue telephone box in Earls Court Road outside the tube station.  Now see what happens if you click on the arrow pointing towards the box.

You can do the same if you find the submarine (HMS Ocelot) that's dry-docked in Chatham Docks.

(How did they get their little car in there?)

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By jimbobaggins
04th Dec 2013 12:34

Did anyone point out that Google Streetview images are often/always several years old?

Do they think that Google are updating the pictures by driving around every street every day? Erm nope.

It took them 7 years to do the first round of images. Don't know about your circumstances,  but quite a lot can change in 7 years, for a start, your kids would have started, attended and left school by then, never mind advertised 7 years of fairs along the way..

On that basis, this is probably the biggest wild goose chase in history. I suppose it is cheaper than visiting though...

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By Philip Hourglass
04th Dec 2013 21:39

Shades of 192.com, Jimbo Baggins..... we are all LOTR and Hobbit Head-Cases, and my younger son is a Jimbo...James / Jamie / Jim (will I be banned, yet again?)

On 192.com my decade-departed sons are still showing up at my former home.....

But Street View can still be INCREDIBLY handy. But one undoubtedly needs to consider that the image may not be "fresh".

It can indeed be cheaper than visiting, but when visiting you can end up in conversation with a neighbour, who happens to take as jaundiced a view of the bod as you do.

 

 

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By newvisionmedia
19th Dec 2013 21:34

Really?

Whilst Street-view can be a handy tool to navigate our great nation I'm afraid the information is in no way accurate enough to determine the current situation at a persons residence. I can google my old address and still see my car sitting on the driveway but I haven't lived there for 2.5 years.

Sorry but I think this is more scare tactics than a real use of modern technology.

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