Report: IRS Debt Collection Program Cost Taxpayers Millions

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In its first year in operation, a new IRS program that was meant to outsource federal tax debt collection efforts ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers three times more than it actually recovered.

The findings were published in a Jan. 10 report by the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA), an independent consumer advocacy arm of the IRS.

In 2015, federal lawmakers enacted legislation that required the IRS to outsource its tax debt collection efforts to private collection agencies. The agency hired four agencies to do the job and spent a total of $20 million to cover program operations. The agencies were charged with collecting $920 million in unpaid debt but, ultimately, they managed to recoup a mere fraction of that amount — $6.7 million in recovered tax debts, according to the report.

Read more: Tax Reform 2018 Explained

After its first year, the current attempt has resulted in a net loss of $13.3 million with less than 1 percent of unpaid tax debt collected.

Consumer advocacy groups like the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) were quick to cry foul, saying the report’s findings show that the program needlessly wasted money and abused taxpayer rights.

“The IRS private debt collector program is the epitome of waste and abuse in government programs,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the NCLC in a statement.

It’s not the first time the U.S. government has outsourced debt collection efforts to private firms. The NCLC notes that an effort in the mid-1990s lost $17 million and was cut after a year. Another attempt to outsource debt collection in 2006 lasted three years and lost $4.5 million.

Among the taxpayers who were most impacted by this latest private collection program are families hovering just above the poverty line, those beneath it, and retirees who are on Social Security or receive disability benefits.

The report found:

  • 4,905 taxpayers were assigned to private collection firms, and of those, 4,141 filed recent returns by Sept. 28, 2017.
  • 44 percent of those taxpayers had incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($24,600 for a family of four).
  • 28 percent had an annual income of less than $20,000
  • 19 percent had a median annual income of $6,386
  • 5 percent received Social Security or disability and had a median income of $14,365
report finds IRS private tax debt collection cost more than recouped
Source: Taxpayer Advocate Service

When you owe a tax debt to the IRS, the IRS typically calculates payment plans so that a family can keep up necessary living expenses like housing, transportation, utilities, food, and out-of-pocket health care after making their tax debt payment. However, NTA states that the data shows that these taxpayers were still pressured by the private collection firms hired by the IRS to enter into payment plans they couldn’t afford.

“Forcing the IRS to use private debt collectors to put the squeeze on vulnerable low-income families simply lines the pockets of these private collectors while jeopardizing the economic well-being of families,” said Wu.

Further insight into the problem is difficult to obtain, the NTA says, because the IRS refuses to let representatives of the organization listen to calls between private debt collectors and taxpayers.

Where do the recovered tax debts go?

Under this program, the IRS would send a 10-day notice to taxpayers letting them know a private debt collector will be assigned to them. Of the $6.7 million collected by PCA’s in 2017, $1.2 million, or 18 percent, was recovered as a result of those letters.

Private firms are not supposed to receive a commission off of collected debts. But the NTA study states that the private debt collectors are receiving commission for work done by the IRS and the agency “has no plans to change its procedures to attempt to identify payments that were clearly not attributable to PCA action.”

The IRS is authorized to keep 25 percent of the amount collected by the private agencies and the agencies themselves receive 20 percent in commission. Of the unpaid taxes collected by PCAs, $3 million is the minimum amount left that goes to the Treasury.

What do I do if debt collectors call?

If you’re called by a debt collector, there are several things to know. First, that you have rights, and second, that you need to know more.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) states certain laws related to debt collection are put in place to protect taxpayers’ privacy and security. For example, they can’t call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. and they can’t harass or threaten you. In addition, if you have an attorney,  the debt collector will need to contact them instead of you.

You also should check with your state attorney general’s office to see if it offers any additional protection or help for dealing with debt collectors.

Keeping track of your documents is also important. Any communication between you and the debt collector, including letters you may have sent, should be kept in a file that starts when the collector calls, the CFPB suggests.

Identifying the debt collector can save you from taking on a debt that isn’t yours or entering into a less-than ideal payment plan. The CFPB suggests that you don’t give any information, personal or financial, until you’ve verified the collector’s name, address, phone number, and all information about the debt, such as whether it’s yours or not, any dates associated with it, and the total amount including any fees.

What happens if I owe a tax debt?

If you owe a tax debt, you should act sooner rather than later. Unpaid tax debts can not only result in extensive penalties and fees but it could result in:

Reduced Social Security benefits

  • Garnished wages
  • Seized property
  • Passport revocation

Interest is compounded daily on past due taxes (the rate fluctuates, but is 3% more than the federal short-term rate) and late payment penalties are charged separately and can go as high as 25% of the owed amount.

If you owe a tax debt, you still have to file your taxes on time.

If you can’t pay, the worst thing to do is ignore the bill. Contact the IRS and ask them to set up some kind of payment plan that you can afford.

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These 18 States Are Raising the Minimum Wage in 2018

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Roughly 4.5 million workers in 18 states are starting off the new year with a pay raise.

Many of the new minimum wages are significantly higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, a rate that states are slowly but surely leaving behind. The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor enforces wage laws, but a new federal minimum wage cannot be set unless a bill is passed by Congress and the president signs it into law.

Since 2009, the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, states have had to act independently to counter rising costs of living as well as the demands of their citizens.

Some 80 million Americans are paid hourly — a group that makes up nearly 59 percent of all wage and salary workers.

The number of people who earned the federal minimum wage or less decreased from 3.3 percent in 2015 to 2.7 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 2016 percentage is far less than in 1979, when records started to be kept consistently and the number of people at or below minimum wage was 13.4 percent.

The 2018 wage increases were, for eight states, due to cost-of-living increases, and for 10 states, a result of approved legislation or ballot initiatives.

Who gets more pay?

An estimated 4.5 million U.S. workers are set to receive a total of $5 billion in additional wages, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“Increasing the minimum wage is a crucial tool to help stop growing wage inequality, particularly for women and people of color who disproportionately hold minimum wage jobs,” wrote Janelle Jones, an economic analyst with the Institute. “As low-wage workers face a growing number of attacks on their ability get a fair return on their work, Congress should act to set a higher wage floor for working people.”

Keep in mind, however, that tipped wages are significantly lower than minimum wages, and wage laws have exceptions, such as full-time students or persons with disabilities. Not every employee who works on an hourly basis is affected by the changes.

Where is the minimum wage increasing?

Here’s a breakdown of the 18 states with higher minimum wages in 2018, using information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. These states join the 19 states in 2017 that raised their minimum wages.

State

Minimum Wage

Reasons and Future Adjustments

Alaska

$9.84

Change due to cost of living.

Arizona

$10.50

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11 beginning 2019 and $12 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually based on cost of living.

California

$11

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $12 in 2019, $13 in 2020, $14 in 2021, and $15 in 2022. At the start of 2023, the rate will increase annually based on the consumer price index.

Colorado

$10.20

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11.10 in 2019 and $12 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually based on the cost of living.

Florida

$8.25

Change due to cost of living, based on a 2004 constitutional amendment.

Hawaii

$10.10

Change due to ballot/legislature.

Maine

$10

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11 in 2019 and $12 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually based on the consumer price index.

Michigan

$9.25

Change due to ballot/legislature.
At the start of 2019, the rate will increase annually based on the consumer price index, but increases will cap at 3.5 percent.

Minnesota

$9.65/$7.87

Change due to cost of living.
Due to 2014's HB 2091, businesses with annual sales over $500,000 have a higher minimum wage than those with sales under $500,000.

Missouri

$7.85

Change due to cost of living.

Montana

$8.30/hr for businesses with annual sales over $110,000
$4/hr for businesses with annual sales under $110,000.

Change due to consumer price index.

New Jersey

$8.60

Change due to consumer price index.

New York

$10.40

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11.10 beginning Dec. 31, 2018, $11.80 in 2019, and $12.50 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually for inflation, capping at $15. Across the state, the minimum wage varies geographically, and by employer size within New York City.

Ohio

$8.30 for businesses with annual sales over $299,000
$7.25 for businesses with annual sales under $299,000

Change due to consumer price index.

Rhode Island

$10.10

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $10.50 beginning 2019.

South Dakota

$8.85

Change due to cost of living.

Vermont

$10.50

Change due to ballot/legislature.
At the start of 2019, the rate will increase annually by the smaller of two options: the consumer index price or 5 percent. The minimum wage cannot be decreased.

Washington

$11.50

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $12 in 2019 and $13.50 in 2020.

The post These 18 States Are Raising the Minimum Wage in 2018 appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

7 Holiday Debt Traps that Can Sabotage Your Finances

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For some consumers, the cheer of the holiday season soon will be replaced with dread over debt.  

Holiday shoppers in 2016 took on an average of $1,003 worth of debt, up from $986 in 2015, and 11 percent said they would only be making the minimum payments, which can extend the payoff date by years.  

“Consumer debt is at the highest of all time,” says Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com.

Total household debt rose to a record $12.96 trillion for the third quarter of this year, according to data released in November by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Credit card debt, for example, rose by 3.1 percent, to $808 billion. 

Dvorkin expects that this holiday season will be expensive as consumers make more online purchases with credit cards and because of overall optimism about the economy. 

Retail holiday sales were expected to grow to $1.04 trillion-$1.05 trillion in 2017, according to Deloitte’s annual holiday retail forecast. Deloitte also projects that e-commerce sales during the holiday season will grow to $111 billion-$114 billion, an 18-21 percent increase from the 2016 holiday season, and 55 percent of survey respondents planned to shop online for gifts. 

“When people feel really good about things, they tend to spend more,” Dvorkin says.   

Bruce McClary, vice president of communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says people have a tendency to overspend during the holidays, relying heavily on credit cards and not paying off the debt until later, sometimes even years later.   

McClary has also noticed that credit card delinquencies have been increasing slightly over the last two quarters. The Federal Reserve Bank notes in its report that “credit card balances increased and flows into delinquency have increased over the past year.”
 

While most Americans are aware and ready to spend a little extra during the holiday season, you can make it a little more merry by avoiding these common debt traps.  

Keeping up with the Joneses

Holiday purchasing pressure ranges from buying the hottest toys to giving (or buying for yourself) the latest tech gadget or the biggest TV on the block. People are tempted to get the latest and greatest, Dvorkin says. 

The average consumer spent roughly $967 on holiday shopping in 2016, up 3.4 percent from 2015, according to the National Retail Federation. Deloitte forecasts that the average consumer in 2017 will spend an average of $1,226, or nearly $2,226 among households earning $100,000 or more.

It all adds up, especially if you’re out to outdo a neighbor: The tree and all the trimmings; hostess gifts for parties; food for your own holiday meals and entertaining; your Clark Griswold-style light shows. Randy Williams, president of A Debt Coach, a counseling service in Kentucky, says the desire for personal reward can contribute to holiday debt. 

“You feel good when you do something for somebody,” he says. 

But then consumers may have the motto “One for you, one for me,” and purchase an item for themselves, which continues the spending cycle. 

Hot holiday toy crazes

Unfurling your child’s Christmas wish list can be at once fun and terrifying. Parents planned to spend, on average, $495 per child, according to 2016 holiday shopping data from the Rubicon Project. 

Lists could include hot holiday toys for 2017 like the $30-$45 Fingerlings (the little plastic monkeys that attach to fingers and move in response to sounds and touch) a $300 Nintendo Switch gaming console or even the $799 Lego Ultimate Collectors Series Millennium Falcon, the company’s biggest set with 7,541 pieces. 

When the toys start to run out, the prices can escalate. The Fingerlings, for example, typically retail at $14.99, but some were listed in November for twice as much on eBay. Since it can be harder for parents to say “no” to the frenzy when it’s a gift that’s going to bring a smile to a little one’s face, Williams says there’s extra incentive to plan well. 

Store credit card pitches

McClary warns not to get into store credit card offers. The instant savings of 10 percent off on the day of your purchase could come with a high cost, such as 29.99 percent APR later. 

“People should resist the temptation,” he says.  

Williams says there’s a reason for the incentives, such as a discount on your purchase, because the company will make back whatever you initially saved. 

“Most people do not pay off their cards within the intro offer time,” he says. 

Instead, set aside cash for holiday spending and use it, instead of credit. If you’re sure you can “affordably borrow,” Williams suggests using an existing line of credit instead of falling for the attractive offers from retailers.  

“Special” offers

Deals seem to abound when shopping online or in stores, but if you aren’t careful, some can land you in more trouble than no deal at all. 

McClary advises to avoid promotions like deferred interest cards and convenience checks. Discounts during the holidays are usually found during other times of the year, too, when the budget is less tight.  

“It’s to the advantage of the consumer to be looking at sales during the year and look for opportunities to get the most out of their money,” he says. 

Trying to keep family traditions alive

Wanting to continue your grandparents’ or parents’ traditions may be sentimental but also pricey in today’s economy. Maybe they held extravagant dinner parties, paid for holiday trips and gave their children  a certain number of gifts every year. You want to follow suit, but can’t afford it. 

“(I’m a) firm believer that what gets us in trouble in the holidays is wanting to do what Mom and Dad did,” Williams says. “Things are more expensive now.” 

Shopping with family members post-Thanksgiving, on Black Friday, although a tradition, also may be a temptation because of impulse buys or if family members don’t hold you accountable to sticking to a budget. 

“It’s tradition but it’s also a day people can’t afford,” Williams says.  

Hosting hordes of holiday visitors

While milk and cookies are left out for Santa, entertaining guests, from neighbors and co-workers to out-of-town family and friends, can increase your food and utilities spending in December. 

According to a holiday retail survey by Deloitte, 24 percent of people plan to attend and/or host more parties and events during the holidays.  

“You spend money in all sorts of ways,” Dvorkin says. 

Indulgent spending

“Where the problem is, we don’t plan for Christmas, we just do Christmas,” says Williams. He says that means sometimes consumers plan, mentally, to go into debt.  

He advises to plan ahead for the next season, adding that he knows people who start checking items off their list in February during sales, or in June or July when fewer people are buying and prices are lower.  

The NRF predicts holiday sales, including gifts and food and beverage items, to reach nearly $682 billion, up from $655.8 billion in 2016. Without careful spending, a large amount of that could be a debt burden on consumers until the next season comes around.

“You don’t want this to be a compounding problem that continues to grow each year,” McClary says. 

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