ECONOMY

Tax evaders easy to catch using new US software

A Greek company has exported mink fur to the US at the price of $12.31, against an average price of $1,134, while another has imported car spark plugs from the US at $423 against an average price of 11 cents. Export underpricing and import overpricing are a common tax-evading method as profits are moved from Greece to countries with a more favorable tax system. It is also another way of money laundering. However, the method developed by a group of scientists at the Florida International University (FIU), led by professor John Zdanovich, promises to close or shrink this loophole. The software system they have created can process the vast amount of customs data and check them one by one, spotting unusual transactions. This is not simple, since in the US alone it means checking 50 million transactions per month. Then tax and customs authorities can examine whether there actually is an unlawful act. Through this method it is estimated that in 2000 tax evasion through over- and underpricing in the US was at $44.5 billion. Zdanovich’s team has received $2 million of funding from the US government to examine the possible application to the country’s 44 customs centers. A close associate of Zdanovich, Stelios Zanakis, recently visited Athens to present the system’s potential to Greek authorities. Data from US customs, he explained, showed that irregular pricing in Greek-US trade deprives Greece of taxable income of about $200 million (2001), which signifies a loss of tax of 56 million euros per year, if all suspicious transactions were illegal. A projection of that to all Greece’s external trade means there is income of 3.44 billion euros concealed, which deprives the Greek state of 1.2 billion euros in taxes. Of course, that is just an estimate after a series of projections and assumptions – including that 50 percent of prices are suspicious, that every suspicious transaction is indeed illegal and that what happens in Greek-US trade also occurs in Greece’s trade with all other countries. Still, Zanakis added, just checking 50 products (25 imports and 25 exports) is enough for anyone to spot about 50 percent of possible tax evasion. The system would not even need to be installed in Greece, as data can be sent to Florida to be processed. Suspicious transactions will then be marked and Greek authorities will be able to locate the relevant voucher and proceed further with the inspection.