WASHINGTON — Want to keep IRS auditors away? Keep your earnings under $200,000, and they won't bother you 99 percent of the time.
IRS enforcement numbers, released Tuesday, show that returns under that amount have a 1 percent chance of getting audited.
Returns showing income of $200,000 and above have a nearly 3 percent audit chance. The percentage jumps to more than 6 percent for returns showing earnings of $1 million or more.
The percentages apply to both individual and joint returns.
The number of audits jumped 11 percent from 2008 to 2009 for returns with earnings of $200,000 or more, but rose 30 percent for returns showing earnings of $1 million or more. For those under $200,000 the number of audits remained steady.
The IRS conducted 1.4 million audits of individual returns in the financial year ended Sept. 30, with more than 1 million conducted through correspondence with the taxpayer. The others were conducted through face-to-face meetings with IRS auditors.
The IRS does not do random audits, but does conduct "research audits" that will test compliance in business tax categories.
In 2010, the target will be payroll taxes, according to Steve Miller, deputy commissioner for enforcement.
What happens if you're audited while unemployed? The IRS may give you a break.
"While our assessments were up, the ability to pay went down drastically" due to the economy, Miller said. "We have a series of tools. We can have them pay partially, over time. If the money is not collectible, it's treated as noncollectible. It's going to depend on each case.
"We have to ensure there's a balance between our responsibility to collect taxes with economic realities. We give people more time and determine how fast they can pay and whether they can pay."
The total revenue collected from IRS enforcement actions, $48.9 billion in 2009, is a drop from $56.4 billion in 2008 and $59.2 billion in 2007.
Miller said the higher numbers in 2007 and 2008 reflect collections from settlements of several major tax shelter cases and other enforcement actions.
In 2007, for example, the IRS resolved disputed tax issues with drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc. and its subsidiaries.
Merck has agreed to pay approximately $2.3 billion in federal tax, net interest and penalties to resolve issues that had been in dispute for tax years 1993-2001.
The resolution was one of the largest achieved in recent years by the IRS and a taxpayer through the examination process.
The IRS has stepped up its examination of tax-exempt organizations, checking the books of more than 10,000 groups in 2009 compared with 7,800 the previous year.
The number of business tax returns examined was down slightly in 2009 from the previous year.