Since many audits seem to occur at random, it’s not always possible to identify the reason why a tax office would decide to initiate one.
We’ve previously spoken about an increased interest in audits from the EU and audits for e-commerce. This article covers the most common reasons behind a VAT audit to help businesses anticipate and prepare for one when possible.
Trigger events for VAT audits
There are specific “trigger” events among the most common reasons that could cause further queries from the tax office. Generally speaking, these are changes in the company’s status such as a new registration, a de-registration, or structural changes within the company.
VAT refund requests also fall into this category. In some countries (Italy and Spain, for example) a refund request is almost certainly a reason for an audit to be initiated since the local tax office cannot release the funds before checks are completed. In this case, the likelihood of an audit increases when a refund is particularly substantial and the business requesting it is newly VAT registered. However, it doesn’t mean that the tax authority will not initiate an audit if the amount requested in a refund is relatively small.
Certain types of businesses are naturally more subject to audits due to their structure and business model. Groups commonly selected for scrutiny include, for example, large companies, exporters, retailers and dealers in high-volume goods. Therefore, elements such as a high number of transactions, high amounts involved and complexity of the business structure could be another common reason for an investigation to be initiated by the local tax authorities.
Tax authorities often identify individual taxpayers based on past compliance and how their information compares with specific risk parameters. This would include comparing previous data and trading patterns with other businesses in the same sector. Therefore, unusual patterns of trading, discrepancies between input and output VAT reported, and many refund requests may appear unusual from the tax office perspective and give rise to questions.
Another common reason for the tax authorities to request further information from taxpayers is the so-called “cross check of activities”. In this case, either a business supplier or client is likely to be subjected to an audit. The tax office will contact their counterparts to verify that the information provided is consistent on both sides. For example, if a business is being audited following its refund request, the tax office will likely contact the suppliers to verify the audited company didn’t cancel the purchase invoices and that they have been paid.
This category also includes cross checking activities on Intra-Community transactions reported by a business. In this scenario, the cross check would be based on information exchanges between local tax authorities through the VAT information exchange system (VIES). The tax authorities can check Intra-Community transactions reported to and from specific VAT numbers in each EU Member State and then cross check this information with what has been reported by a business on their respective VAT return. If any discrepancy arises, the tax office will likely contact the business to ask why they have (or haven’t) reported the transactions declared by their counterparts.
Regardless of whether it’s possible to identify the actual reason the tax authority initiated an audit, a business can undertake several actions in preparation for a check of activities, which will be covered in the next article of this series.