Advertising Disclosure

How to Avoid an IRS Audit

Around tax time, the mere utterance of the “A” word is enough to make even the most honest taxpayers break into a cold sweat. Tax codes are so complicated, and the IRS so stringent, that an auditor could probably find an error or two in almost anybody’s return. But don’t sweat; understanding how the IRS selects tax returns to audits may just decrease your chances of being selected.

Audit Risk Factors

The IRS selects the majority of tax returns to audit in one of two ways—either by noticing something on your tax return that sets off a “red flag” or by random. (In addition to “red flag” returns, a certain number of returns are audited at random every year—no way to avoid that one). You can, however, take steps to avoid having your return flagged for an audit.

The IRS uses a complex, top-secret algorithm called the DIF Score to select returns that have the highest potential of producing additional tax revenue in an audit. (Remember, they’re not just checking in on you to make sure you’re playing fair; they’re checking in to see if they can get more money out of you)!’

The formula compares your tax return to average returns for your occupation, age, income, and geographic location, and any major deviations could make you stand out. For example, if you reported an income of $40,000 and $12,000 in donations to charity, while most people in your income bracket deduct about $200 for donations, you stand a good chance of triggering an audit. Low-income filers who live in high-income zip codes may also be at risk.

In addition to the DIF score, certain categories of taxpayers may have a higher audit risk. This includes:

  • Freelancers and the self-employed
  • Workers with cash income (e.g., waiters)
  • Taxpayers using offshore banks and credit cards (no-brainer there)
  • High income filers

How to Protect Yourself

An audit is nothing to worry about if you’ve been honest on your tax returns and have the proof. If you did make $12,000 in charitable contributions, by all means deduct it as long as you have receipts to prove it. The same goes for business/self-employment deductions and personal deductions. Also, if you have an extremely large or unusual deduction, provide a written note or explanation with your return—humans don’t look at every tax return, but they will if there’s a red flag, and a simple note of explanation may be enough to preempt any excess scrutiny.

Finally, some suggest that the later you file, the less likely your return will be selected for an audit. If you are not worried about an audit and are expected a refund, file your taxes as soon as you can. If you are worried about your audit risk, and/or owe any taxes, do not file before the April 15th deadline. Some filers even file an extension every year to reduce their audit risk. (If you do file an extension, remember that you must still pay any taxes due on April 15 or face interest and penalties).

Still need to file your taxes? Prepare and file your federal tax return for free with TurboTax Federal Free Edition.

Published or updated on March 5, 2009

Want FREE help eliminating debt & saving your first (or next) $100,000?

Money Under 30 has everything you need to know about money, written by real people who've been there. Enter your email to receive our free weekly newsletter and MoneySchool, our free 7-day course that will help you make immediate progress on whatever money challenge you're facing right now.

We'll never spam you and offer one-click unsubscribe, always.

About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. I’ve always considered the IRS one of the biggest, rapacious financial predators and even criminal organizations in the world. Which makes me outright thankful that I’m a Canadian Citizen. Though we got Revenue Canada, which is just as bad, but far less brutal and infamous.

    The reason why I hold the IRS relevant is their connection to the federal reserve. Given that I do some business outside of Canada, I have to take into account the withholding taxes I’m subjected to, as well as ways to minimize my income tax here. Which is pretty stringent, as well.

  2. Speak Your Mind