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IRS Red Flags That Put Your Tax Return at Risk for an Audit

I was a Registered Tax Return Preparer (RTRP) and a partner in 3 national brand tax preparation stores in Pennsylvania for over 10 years.

Don't do anything that will raise a red flag for the IRS.

Don't do anything that will raise a red flag for the IRS.

Nine Red Flag Warnings

Almost as soon as we finish our tax returns many of us begin to worry about a dreaded IRS audit.

These audits usually involve a letter that asks for clarification, more information, or additional documentation. It will usually be accompanied by a request for payment of additional taxes and possibly interest and penalties. The letter will state why the IRS thinks you owe additional money. It will then be up to you to prove otherwise.

Taxpayers don't usually have to worry about three men in dark coats showing up one day at their home to take them off to a windowless office only to have a bright light shined in their faces until they cough up the dough.

Common Red Flags That Can Put You at Risk for an IRS Audit?

  1. Having a High Income
  2. Not Reporting All of Your Income
  3. Taking Larger Than Average Deductions
  4. Being Self-Employed (Filing a Schedule C)
  5. Taking Excess Business Deductions
  6. Claiming a Home Office
  7. Claiming a Hobby as a Business
  8. Owning Multiple Rental Properties
  9. Fraud

1. Having a High Income

The higher your income, the higher your risk for an audit. It just goes with the territory.

For all taxpayers, the overall risk of an audit is a little over 1%. If you make over $200,000, it goes up to about 4%. Make over $1,000,000, and the risk increases to about 12%.

Think underreporting will decrease your risk of an audit? The IRS already has all of those W-2s, 1099s, K-1s, etc., that have also been sent to you. If you don't report them, the IRS will know.

Likewise, it probably isn't a great idea to go and ask your boss for a pay cut so that you don't get audited. But, you could increase your contribution to your 401(k) and decrease your taxable income this way.


2. Not Reporting All of Your Income

This falls under two categories.

  1. As I said above, if you receive a W-2, 1099, or K-1, etc., you have to report the income. The IRS already knows about it.
  2. If you have a business that deals primarily in cash transactions, don't underreport your income just because there isn't always a record of it. Cash businesses in and of themselves are red flags to the IRS. Live in a $300,000 house, drive an expensive car, but report only $25,000 in income from your business, the IRS is going to question how you do it.

3. Taking Larger Than Average Deductions

The IRS knows what to expect for deductions based on your income. Take a deduction that the IRS feels is too high for your income, and you may risk an IRS inquiry.

Charitable contributions receive particular scrutiny. All cash donations require receipts for documentation.

The rules for non-cash contributions have become even more stringent. For non-cash donations, you have to document how you determined the value of the item you are donating. You can no longer claim a $20 deduction for the old shirt you gave to charity just because you may think it is worth that much. You may have to determine and claim its thrift shop value instead. Some valuable items may require an appraisal to clearly determine their value. For all non-cash donations over $500, you must also file a Form 8283.


4. Being Self-Employed (Filing a Schedule C)

Being self-employed and filing a Schedule C to report your business income is a potential red flag on at least two fronts.

  1. First, the IRS will want to be sure that you reported all of your income. The IRS will look to see that you reported all income, particularly income reported on a 1099-MISC. If you have a business that deals primarily in cash transactions, agents are trained to look for clues that may indicate that you didn't report all of your income.
  2. Second, the IRS will closely examine all of the deductions you use to decrease your profit (or increase your loss). Schedule C is full of deductions that will decrease your taxable income. Take deductions that look excessive, and you risk an audit.

5. Taking Excess Business Deductions

Deductions for entertainment, meals, and travel will be closely looked at by the IRS. You must keep detailed documentation of these expenditures, including the location, the people in attendance, the business purpose, and the nature of the discussion. You must have a receipt for any expense over $75 and for all lodging while away from home.

100% business use of a vehicle can trigger a red flag to the IRS. While you can claim a deduction for the business use of your personal car, the IRS may feel it is unusual for you to have a vehicle that is used 100% for business. Keep precise logs of mileage, business purpose, and calendar entries to document the business use of your personal vehicle. You can claim the standard mileage rate or actual expenses, but you can't claim both.

6. Claiming a Home Office

If you run a business out of your home, you may qualify for a home office deduction. A home office will allow you to deduct a percentage of your rent or mortgage interest, utilities, insurance, and real estate taxes from your business income.

To qualify for the home office deduction, you have to use an area of your home exclusively for business. Your family can't watch TV in the room in the evening, and your children can't use your office computer to do their homework.

Beginning with the 2014 tax filing season (for tax year 2013) there is a simplified option for claiming the Home Office Deduction. If you choose this method, you must still use an area of your home (maximum 300 square feet) exclusively for your business, but you will not have to keep all of the records or complete the rather onerous calculations required with the regular method.

With the simplified method, you receive a deduction of $5/square foot of your home used exclusively for business (maximum deduction $1500). If your home office expenses are more, you may still choose the regular method to calculate the deduction.

7. Claiming a Hobby as a Business

For many, what they do for business is something they enjoy doing. Enjoy photography, go into business as a photographer and get to deduct the cost of your camera and your expenses. Sell a picture or two, and you're home free. Sounds like a great plan. Maybe not so fast.

The IRS allows you to deduct expenses for a legitimate business but not for a hobby. If you claim a hobby with a lot of expenses and large losses, such as car racing, as a business, you run the risk of an audit.

You must report any income you earn from a hobby, such as the sale of a few pictures if you are a photographer. But, you can only deduct your expenses to the extent of the income you generated from the hobby. You cannot deduct losses.

To be a business, the activity must have an expectation of making a profit, and it must generate a profit of at least three out of every five years.

8. Owning Multiple Rental Properties

If you have rental property and you actively participate in the management of it, you can claim a deduction for up to $25,000 in losses. This deduction phases out for incomes over $100,000 and disappears when your income exceeds $150,000.

If you can prove you are a real estate professional (developer, landlord, broker, etc.), there is no limit to the losses you can deduct.

Don't claim to be a real estate professional when you are not. The IRS will find out about your real day job.

9. Fraud

With increased e-filing, fraud has significantly increased and risen on the IRS radar screen. Tax refunds have been delayed in part because of new IRS screenings for fraud.

  • Taking credits that you are not entitled to. Claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit with a qualifying child who is not your own child could raise some red flags. There were a lot of people that claimed the First Time Homebuyer Credit a few years ago that were not entitled to it, including one four-year-old.
  • Increasing or decreasing your income to increase your Earned Income Tax Credit. By the nature of the EITC, it increases as your income increases to a certain point, and then as your income increases further, your EITC will decrease. There are taxpayers that will manipulate business income to hit the sweet spot of a maximum credit. I wouldn't want to get caught doing this.
  • Filing false tax returns. The IRS is aware of identity theft to obtain social security numbers that are then used to tax file returns and fraudulently claim a refund. This year, at least one client in our tax office had a fraudulent tax return filed under her social security number.

How to Avoid Being Flagged by the IRS

  1. Report all of your income.
  2. If you can prove you are entitled to legitimate deductions, take them.
  3. Keep good documentation to justify your deductions.
  4. Save your receipts to verify your expenses.
  5. Don't take deductions or claim credits you are not entitled to.


Any federal tax or tax planning information provided above or linked to this article is not meant to be specific to any particular individual or situation. Anyone who wishes to apply this information should first discuss it with an accountant or tax professional to determine its appropriateness or how it specifically applies to their unique situation.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: How much can I claim on my state tax for work items for PA and not have to pay taxes on them?

Answer: You can claim all work related expenses on your PA taxes if you have receipts. Examples of work related expenses that you can claim include union dues, licenses, tools, special clothing for work such as work boots. Basically anything that is required to do your job but would not be used outside of work. For example, you can claim a special work uniform or shoes if they would not be normally worn outside of work. You cannot claim a nice dress or suit and tie since they could easily be used outside of work.

Question: If you sell your first house do you have to pay a fee ?

Answer: If the house is your primary residence, and you have lived in it at least two out of the past five years, when you sell the house you can exclude from taxes up to $250,000 (single or $500,000 married) of any gain you may have received from the sale of the house.

© 2012 Mark Shulkosky


Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on March 16, 2015:

Glad you found the Hub helpful Kimberly

Kimberly Vaughn from Midwest on March 16, 2015:

Great info! I have always been curious about this.

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on February 14, 2015:

Glad you found the Hub helpful, Jacobb9205. Good luck with your taxes this year.

Jacobb9205 on February 14, 2015:

Great article, all information is very helpful. Thank you!

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on October 21, 2014:

Thanks for your comments itingguru. You are correct, some of the issues that get people in trouble are really only honest mistakes in part due to the complexity of the tax code. Simplifying the tax code would go a long way in limiting these issues.

S Sharma from California on October 21, 2014:

Great hub! All the points are valid; the people who try to cheat intentionally in their tax filing have huge chances to getting audited by IRS. But sometimes it can also happened by doing mistakes while filing taxes. Sometimes, when a small business owner prepares and file taxes themselves. The chances of doing mistakes are more because of lack of knowledge about taxes. In this case a professional help is good.

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on October 17, 2014:

Thanks for stopping by handymanbill

Bill from Greensburg Pennsylvania on October 17, 2014:

Very informative voted up.

Joe from north miami FL on May 29, 2014:

Great hub, shows how careful you have to be careful at all times.

Well written and great information.

kristalfisher1 on March 08, 2014:

Great job! One would think these tips would be self evident or obvious but, I am amazed at how few people really know anything about this subject. Thank you for helping add contrast to the many many shades of grey.

Jmillis2006 from North Carolina on February 08, 2013:

Great hub with good information. Voted up

pmiles from North Carolina on January 21, 2013:

Excellent article, thank you!

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on March 27, 2012:

cherrycrime26, thanks for commenting and voting up. I'm glad your tax problem is now behind you.

January Moon from NY, Now Living in Atlanta Ga on March 26, 2012:

This a very informative Hub, I was audited in 09, but all is well now, thumbs ups