Tax Man Asks "What's on The Grill?"

5/28/2014

If you're like millions of Americans, you spent last weekend welcoming the unofficial start of summer. You might have enjoyed a day at the pool, a game of tennis, or a round of golf. You may have even hosted a backyard barbecue. If so, you probably didn't realize that serving fancy fare like lobster or crab cakes would impress the tax man as well as your guests — at least, if you live in England.  

Across "the pond," Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs is the equivalent of our IRS, charged with collecting the taxes that pay for royal kibble for the Queen's royal corgis. And just as here in the former colonies, there's a "tax gap" between what officials believe they should be collecting and what they actually get. In England's case, that difference is about £35 billion (a spot under $60 billion depending on the exchange rate).  

HMRC has already drawn heat for going all "Big Brother" in their efforts to ferret out tax evaders. Last year, they announced a new program to use credit checks to find suspected tax cheats. The goal is to cross-check what people report on their tax returns against what they actually spend. Officials started with a pilot program involving 20,000 people — and they expect to expand it to as many as two million.  

But now they're going even farther. Now they're using images from Google Earth and Google Street View) to literally spy on homes to trap suspected tax cheats! Are you paying proper tax on your home improvements as you've described them on tax forms? Are you paying enough tax on all the cars parked in your driveway? Presumably, if the images of your lawn party are detailed enough to distinguish between ordinary bangers and high-end potted shrimp, they'll use that against you too!  

And what are they doing with those images? Four years ago, they dropped £50 million on a supercomputer named "Connect" to help decide who to investigate. According to the Daily Mail, it already holds more than a billion records, including "tax payment records, interest on bank accounts, details of any properties owned, loans, job history and electoral records." Bragging about your new car or your "trip of a lifetime" on Facebook can also trigger unwelcome attention.  

Back here in the states, our National Security Agency's wholesale snooping in the name of fighting terrorism ignited a row of protest — and that was nothing compared to what HMRC freely admits doing, just in the pursuit of a few bloody quid. Can you imagine the outcry if, say, the reporters who helped break the Edward Snowden story discovered the IRS was analyzing credit scores and voting records to help decide who to audit?