States target certain businesses for sales tax audits according to data
For most companies, the mere idea of a sales tax audit is a daunting prospect, and probably the most common of strategies is a “fingers crossed we don’t get picked” approach. But for certain types of businesses, just doing what you do can be enough to attract the attention of the state auditor.
According to state departments of revenue data, certain industries are at a higher risk of being audited simply based on how sales and use tax regulations impact their business. The more complex the rules, the higher the odds that errors or oversights will happen. These mistakes can be costly – both for states that are missing out on tax revenues and the companies that fall short on compliance.
The audit process uncovered
Unless you’ve been through an audit before, you likely have no idea what to expect, never mind why the state is looking at you or why your business has been selected for an audit. Sometimes, companies are chosen at random. But more often, something you are doing (or not doing) in your business has raised the red flag for state auditors.
Sales and Use Tax Audits Uncovered, a new report by Avalara and Peisner and Johnson, aims to set the record straight on why some businesses get audited more than others and the behaviors driving these trends. Analysis compiled from real audit data from two of the four Big Four states, Texas and California, and findings from more than 64,000 audits conducted over a 27-year period went into the writing of the report. Some interesting patterns emerged from this data on the types of companies that tend to get audited, the reasons why they get audited, and what activities make them more vulnerable to an audit.
- 60% of audits target only four industries
- One-third of audits are now conducted out of state
- The two most frequently identified audit errors are improperly managing exempt sales and out-of-state purchases
Lax tax practices are red flags
The study found that certain factors, such as audit history and having a high ratio of exempt sales to total sales, led to a higher risk of being audited. While these seem straightforward, other characteristics like industry type are less understood. What exactly is it that puts these businesses in the state auditors’ crosshairs when it comes to tax compliance?
For starters, certain tax practices can put any business at greater risk of audit. According to the California Board of Equalization, the top three most frequently seen problems are:
- Not charging tax on out-of-state sales
- Recorded versus reported difference in taxes collected and remitted
- Not properly documenting tax-exempt sales
Which industries are a target
According to audit data, the industries targeted most by auditors are Retail, Food Service, Manufacturing, Wholesale (/Distribution), and Construction. These were ranked in the top five in both California and Texas. It’s likely that these industries attract attention based on the types of compliance errors auditors uncover when auditing these businesses. For example, sales tax nexus was a common hurdle shared among all five of these industries. Not surprising, given that states have vastly changed the definition and thresholds for nexus beyond the physical presence standards.
Beyond nexus, audit triggers were more specific to the tax complexities experienced by each industry. For example, product taxability can be especially burdensome for retailers, wholesalers, and food services, especially given how differently states tax different products and services. Use tax and exempt sales tends to trip up manufacturers and construction companies. And drop shipping can complicate compliance for distribution companies. These and other audit triggers are covered in more depth in the report, along with audit profiles and outcomes for each of the high-risk industries.
The report also reveals that states are getting more serious about sales tax audits — especially in recouping lost revenues from ecommerce sales — hiring more auditors and focusing greater efforts on audits conducted out of state. What exactly does being caught in non-compliance cost nowadays? According to Wakefield Research, small to mid-size businesses are out approximately $114,000 in taxes, fees and penalties if auditors find problems. It can be nearly four times that amount for larger firms.
Reduce risk with sales tax automation
While you may not be able to head off a sales tax audit forever, you can make the process far less painful by managing tax compliance more efficiently. This starts with having a clear understanding of your tax obligations and a reliable way to ensure you can comply with them — now and should they change. Tax automation software like Avalara can provide this assurance.
Get your free copy of the Sales and Use Tax Audits Uncovered report to learn more about audit triggers, how to avoid them, and how to protect your business against unnecessary tax compliance risk.
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