Taxman uses Google street cameras to zoom in on tax-dodgers’ assets
Bit of a non-story really, of course HMRC use Google maps, they’ll also use Facebook too and check out your twitter account (if you have one). Put your email address (or you name in quotes) into Google and see what comes back, it takes a few seconds to do.
However it can kick out a load of rubbish too. When I was investigated they knew I was a journalist, but there is also a journalist called Nick Morgan who works for the Financial Times, I bet they thought they’d hit the jackpot when they saw how prolific I was!
Here’s the story…
From The Times
The taxman is using Google’s satellite and street camera technology to spy on homeowners.
Inspectors at HM Revenue & Customs are using the pictures taken by Google Earth and Street View to assess whether a taxpayer’s property and lifestyle are consistent with the level of declared earnings.
A flashy car parked outside or a big extension in the back garden could raise suspicions and trigger further investigation, according to accountants.
Roy Maugham, a tax partner at UHY Hacker Young, said: “The taxman is 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.”
“The website provides a kerbside view of homes and businesses, giving inspectors a quick way to assess a person’s lifestyle and see whether it matches their declared income.” Major home improvements or numerous and expensive cars parked in the driveway could suggest that someone is earning more than they say.
HMRC has spent nearly £1 billion over the past three years trying to crack down on tax evasion. The tax authority is battling to close a £35 billion gap between what it believes individuals and companies owe and the tax that is actually collected. Mr Maugham said: “HMRC believes that 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.”
The Revenue says that tax evasion and the hidden economy — customers not paying VAT on home repairs, for example — cost the UK taxpayer £9 billion a year.
The use of Google’s controversial technology has raised concerns that people could be targeted unfairly because the images are not regularly updated. “There are limitations to relying on the information Google Street View provides,” Mr Maugham said. “Outdated evidence could lead to HMRC making serious misassumptions about undeclared income, which innocent taxpayers will then have to dispute.”
In one case that UHY Hacker Young worked on, Street View was used to provide clues as to whether a family was using a private school, thanks to the widespread practice of advertising school fêtes on signs in parents’ gardens.
Mr Maugham added: “In the case of the school fête we were able to point out that the poster was actually on the neighbours’ side of the fence, but it may not always be so easy for taxpayers to prove their innocence.”
Paul Aplin, a tax partner at the accountants AC Mole, said: ‘‘We’ve even seen cases where tax inspectors zoom in on aerial images of a caravan park belonging to a businessman to check the number of properties against the amount of income being declared.”
The information gathered by inspectors is stored on HMRC’s £50 million “supercomputer”, Connect. Created by BAE Systems three years ago, the system holds more than a billion pieces of information about taxpayers suspected of not declaring everything that they owe.
The taxman is also monitoring suspected evaders’ social networking feeds, such as Twitter and Facebook, to glean further information about their lifestyles. Announcing the purchase of a new car or luxury holiday can trigger a Revenue inquiry.
Google’s Street View has been embroiled in controversy since it was first introduced in American cities in 2007. The mobile cameras started taking pictures of Britain’s streets in 2009. Campaigners argue that the technology is an invasion of privacy, with pictures appearing of people and their homes without their consent.
From Today’s Times, full article here.