Tuesday, March 13, 2012
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Avoid These IRS Scams
Listen up, readers. IRS related scams abound this time of year. You'll find a few new ones in this year's barrage.
NUMBER ONE: The IRS, or any legitimate institution, will NEVER send you an email requesting personal information. They will not email you to warn about a problem with your tax return. They will not email you notice of an audit. They will not email you with information about your refund.
They will not show up at your door unannounced. Any credentials they present in doing so are forged.
This is likely the most often repeated advice since the advent of the Internet. Yet as long as folks are still falling for scams, it bears repeating.
Should you receive a suspicious email claiming to come from the IRS, forward it to firstname.lastname@example.org for their inspection.
The official web address of the Internal Revenue Service is IRS.GOV. Any similar URL is a scam. It isn't enough to see that name displayed in an email link. What you see doesn't matter, it's the underlying html code that directs your web browser to a particular location when you click a link. I can tell you that clicking this link will direct you to Nascar.com. But if you click it, you'll find yourself on the GCF Bank home page.
If you're concerned that an email, or a telephone call, or a letter you received may be legitimate, follow up using a contact number found somewhere other than on the correspondence itself.
Scammers also come in the guise of tax advisors or preparers. They should be easy to spot, yet they still bilk millions out of unsuspecting folks each and every year.
Anyone promising a refund is probably a con artist. Particularly this tax season when so many popular credits and deductions have expired. Someone who tells you differently may be less than honest in preparing your return to get you that refund. This is called tax fraud. And you're the one who will be paying the penalty plus interest on what was actually due.
Avoid anyone who bases their fee on a percentage of your refund. You can wind up in the same position as in the previous paragraph. A legitimate tax preparer charges a set fee for each form completed on your behalf.
There are no secret accounts for U.S. citizens that entitle you to an automatic refund. You cannot access the non-existent account by filing a Form 1099-OID (Original Issue Discount).
The IRS has ruled that there is no such thing as a pure trust or constitutional trust. They are not a vehicle for receiving tax-free income. Kiss any money you give to an "advisor" to establish such a trust goodbye. So, too, will be the scammer when you try to track him down.
Individuals belonging to a particular religious or ethnic group are not exempt from paying federal income tax. There is no African-American slavery reparation exemption.
It can take the IRS a couple of years to catch these scams, but they will catch them. If they notice the name of the same preparer on multiple questionable returns, you can bet they'll pull others submitted by the same person to audit.
Many of these thieves work from home. Tax preparation software has made it very easy for anyone to do their own tax returns, along with those of friends and neighbors. The IRS knows this.
As of this year, every paid preparer must have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) that identifies them as being registered with the IRS. There's an application for them to complete along with a fee. The IRS has a copy of their Social Security card and a picture ID. Many of them first have to complete a competency exam.
Make sure your preparer signs your forms and includes his PTIN. Be suspicious if your forms are shown as being self-prepared. Keep a copy of the signed forms for your records.
Nobody wants to pay the government more than their fair share, except maybe Warren Buffet. I say we should let him.
The rest of us, though, want to pay only our legitimate responsibility. We don't want to support thieves as well.
EDITORIAL: Did I Hear That Right?
The recent uproar over comments made by conservative radio talk host Rush Limbaugh is just the tip of an iceberg.
Limbaugh's outrage over a disturbing situation led him to say some things he later regretted. Who among us has not done the same, at least once in our life? The difference is that Limbaugh has a national audience.
One person who did the same was MSNBC's Ed Schultz, and he does have a national audience. He referred to talk show host Laura Ingraham by the same name used by Limbaugh in May of 2011. Twice, in fact.
Schultz, like Limbaugh, apologized for his disparaging remark. He was subsequently suspended for one week from his show.
Did you hear about this at the time? Did activists call for his permanent removal from the airwaves? Was it splattered across the Internet before Limbaugh, too, crossed the line of decency?
Two wrongs will never make one right. Petty name calling will never defend a point you're trying to make.
Yet I can't help but wonder where the public outrage was last May. Were Schultz' remarks not equally as offensive? Why weren't they the subject of every news headline at the time?
What about talk show host Bill Maher's defamatory comments about Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann? Has public outrage caused any of his sponsors to jump ship?
Perhaps they would have been had they been uttered at another point in time. Like if he represented the views of those in opposition to the ideology of the administration currently in power. As does Limbaugh now.
Cable television channels permit viewers to access information matching their interests, needs and convictions.
The Golf Channel targets programming towards folks who enjoy the links. Speed Channel targets racing enthusiasts, the Food Network to those wanting to hone their culinary skills.
Cable news channels slant their coverage towards their particular audience. That's their job. MSNBC and parent channel NBC promote liberal views, Fox News Channel caters to conservatives. Gone are the days of Walter Conkrite when network news was unbiased.
Media bias is not an opinion here. It's a fact. And it occurs for a variety of reasons.
For instance, you wouldn't want matters of national security released at a time of war when our country is vulnerable. Certain news events may be kept quiet until the safety of our nation is assured.
We may hear a new health finding that touts salmon as the perfect food. Its high Omega-3 content promotes cardio vascular health, strengthens muscles and helps ward off cancer and other diseases. But one tidbit is missing from the report. It was sponsored by the seafood industry. Don't get me wrong. Salmon offers excellent health benefits. But the details are important.
Or you might hear about the benefits of butter over oleo margarine as researched by the dairy association. Who happens to be a paid advertiser on the channel you're watching.
Sensationalism is another form of bias. An example would be airplane safety. Every airplane incident is newsworthy. Automobile accidents are commonplace, you don't hear about them unless they're particularly gory or tie up traffic.
In 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, 32,885 people lost their lives in automobile accidents in the U.S. alone. Globally, only 486 people died in a plane crash in all of 2011.
Political correctness has become another form of bias. It seems as if people are offended by most everything today. Words take on different connotations over the years. I'm just waiting for someone to change the words to popular holiday classics. How much longer will we be able to "Don we now our gay apparel?" The word "gay" itself is not slanderous, it once meant merriment. We now have to be careful of using it in any context, lest it be misconstrued and create a media frenzy.
Sporting teams face penalties for using nicknames chosen 100 years ago. Names representing Native American culture once symbolized a proud, strong heritage. Today, it's spun as slanderous.
The media would lead you to believe that it's okay to suppress displays of Christian faith, but it's not okay to investigate a Muslim mosque known to harbor terrorists. You must show a photo I.D. to board an airplane or drive a car. But it's a violation of rights to need one to cast a vote.
Political candidates are quick to cast a stone at their opponents. We hear only the problems created, votes against popular causes and jobs lost during their watch in the nightly sound bites.
And turn a deaf ear to the opponent's defense as they try to explain economic growth, new jobs created and programs unveiled over those same years.
By now you might be wondering where this all ties in. The media has become a powerful tool. This is an election year. By believing whatever you hear on TV, read in the paper or see online, you could be casting your crucial vote for someone who will lead our country in the wrong direction.
You can't believe the words that come out of a politician's mouth, or their opponent's. They're all after something - your vote. They'll tell you whatever they think you want to hear. I'm not referring to a single party or candidate here. Honesty has no role on the campaign trail.
Conduct thorough research on your own. Refer to key pieces of legislature enacted during their term of office. How did they vote? What community efforts are they involved with in their private life? This provides a glimpse into where their allegiance may lie.
Rush Limbaugh has been a harsh critic of the current administration. It should come as no surprise that they would rather not have him riling up the opposition during the pivotal campaign season.
As Marvin Gaye once pined, "Believe half of what you see. Son, and none of what you hear." Don't hear your news through the grapevine. Investigate. Form your own opinion based on fact.
When you go to the polls, vote for the candidate that will lead this country in whatever direction you deem best. Yes, this advice comes a bit early. But you'll need all the time you can get to properly perform your due diligence.
Strong Private Property Rights
This week we will return to our previous discussion regarding the strong institutions necessary for a prosperous society. Perhaps I should have covered strong private property rights first, because they are arguably the most important institution.
First off, it is important to understand the difference between private and public goods. This is a big deal in economics. And generally speaking, economists have a strong preference for private goods. Private goods are "excludable" meaning that owners of such goods can prevent others who haven't paid for the same good from using it. Private goods are also "rivalrous" meaning that consumption of a good by one prevents consumption by another. Once you consume the cheesecake, nobody else gets to enjoy it. Before you deem this subject too deep, this concludes our session on the economic theory of private goods.
From a practical standpoint, it is very easy to think of many, many private goods: Your automobile, your home, your vacation, and yes, your health care - all are private goods by definition. Why do economists prefer private goods? Because private individuals transacting in a free market generally utilize resources in a very efficient, make that the most efficient manner. I have a colleague who often quotes, "There is no interest like self interest," and he is correct. Human nature dictates that individuals take far greater care of property they own and spend resources far more judiciously when it is coming out of their own pocket. Hard to dispute.
So what about public goods? Public goods, by definition, are "non-rivalous" in that consumption by one individual does not materially reduce the availability of the same good for others. Think highway, and in the absence of a traffic jam, one's use of a public highway is not materially impacted by another individual using that same resource. Public goods are also "non-excludable" meaning no one individual can be unduly prevented from consuming the good. Once again, in most cases, anyone is free to use a public highway. There are exceptions and limitations of course, but these definitions are useful in understanding macroeconomics and hence prosperous societies.
So if private goods are so wonderful, why then do we even need public goods? The reason is capitalism and free markets each have some (minor) rough edges. And while individuals controlling their own private property is almost always the most efficient use of resources, there are exceptions. Hence, in some cases (not many) each individual procuring their own assets is not efficient.
Stated differently, sharing some assets reduces the cost for each individual user and is therefore a more efficient use of such resources. For example, we all share an airport for our typically infrequent use. It would, of course, be absolutely ludicrous for each individual to build their own airport for their own occasional private use. Economically speaking, it would also be a huge waste of available resources. You get the point.
Consider another more conceptual public good example. Assume six friends, "The Islanders," buy a small vacation island in the Bahamas. They divide the island into six equal parcels, each with the same amount of beach front. The island real estate is private property with the six parcels owned individually by each of the six friends. Each island property owner may choose to do with what they like with their parcel, and some decide to build homes there, while others prefer to leave it in its natural state for enjoyment. In any event, it is quickly realized by all the Islanders that in order to commute to and from the mainland for these tropical vacations, a dock will be needed for their private vessels. One possibility is that each islander could build their own dock at their own expense. Six private docks would certainly serve the purpose, but would it be efficient? But then one of the Islanders, an economist, has an idea. Why don't we build a single community dock, split the cost six ways and share it? Clearly this is a more optimal solution. Hence, the dock would be a public good for the Islanders.
Now that the theory and definitions are out of the way, next week we will discuss how vitally important respect for private property, and limits on public goods, is absolutely vital to a prosperous society. Stay tuned...
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