Fintechs have been ahead of the curve in understanding certain criminal typologies thanks to the holistic and data centric approach they often take to tackling financial crime. However, there has been little focus on tax fraud as a criminal enterprise and how that may effect the Fintech community.
With the recent release of the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers, tax evasion and tax avoidance are back under public debate as governments and individuals ponder how best to ensure that everyone pays the taxes they owe. The data leaked by the Paradise and Panama Papers put into the spotlight the blurred lines between tax avoidance and tax evasion, which are often facilitated using the same complex mechanisms and can confuse our understanding of what is acceptable tax reduction and what is not. This has put international governments under pressure to address the growing consensus that tax avoidance and the exploitation of tax loopholes has gone too far.
For the Fintech sector, this means that in the near-to-medium future, our understanding of tax fraud and tax evasion could fundamentally shift. To stay ahead of the curve, we therefore have to ask ourselves: how does tax fraud affect Fintechs and what are our responsibilities in combatting it?
One of the major confusions around tax fraud, tax evasion and tax avoidance is the definitions used. So, here are some definitions to help us clarify the issue at hand:
Tax Avoidance: tax avoidance is reducing one’s tax burden within the letter of the law (but often not within the spirit of the law). Examples include tax deductions or establishing an offshore company or trust in a tax haven to reduce tax liability.
Tax Fraud: tax fraud, according to HMRC, is illegally avoiding paying taxes. It is made up of three components—tax evasion, criminal attacks and participation in the hidden economy.
Tax Evasion: tax evasion is one type of tax fraud concerning individuals or businesses who intentionally misreport information to reduce their tax liabilities.
In terms of regulation, tax fraud has never received the attention given to sexier crimes such as money laundering or terrorist financing. However, this is beginning to change. At the end of September 2017, the Criminal Finances Act came into force in the UK, which made companies more liable for failing to prevent tax evasion, including facilitating the evasion of UK taxes by international entities and facilitating the evasion of foreign taxes by UK entities. The best way for Fintech companies to avoid liability is through robust risk management and a strong compliance programme.
Not only are Fintechs more liable for tax fraud than before, but the problem of tax fraud is growing. The current gap between taxes owed and taxes due is £34 billion, half of which is due to tax fraud.
There are several ways that tax fraud can touch the Fintech sector, including:
Using Fintech products to collect bogus tax refunds or to facilitate tax fraud.
Using Fintech products to process funds derived from the hidden economy.
Using Fintech products to mask the origin of funds
So what can Fintechs do to protect themselves and reduce the negative social impact of tax fraud? Here are our recommendations:
1. File SARs in a timely fashion. A quarter of all HMRC tax investigations are stimulated by SARs, so filing these properly is critical in the fight against tax fraud. You can also contact HMRC direct via the link here.
2. Ensure robust onboarding and KYC policies to a) decrease the anonymity of the product and b) avoid liability in tax fraud cases.
3. Impose reasonable transaction limits and limits on the number of accounts held in order to decrease the attractiveness of the product to tax fraudsters. Keep these limits under constant review based on changing typologies.
4. Monitor relationships in an ongoing fashion and watch out for red flags such as
Suspiciously large transactions sent for ‘expenses’
Spending that does not reflect expected income
Unexplained payments into customer accounts from sources linked to work or employment
Multiple tax refunds coming into one account
Multiple transfers to financial institutions in high-risk tax jurisdictions