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15 Facts About the IRS to File Away

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The one thing most people know about the Internal Revenue Service is that they don't like it. A recent survey found that only 31 percent of Americans trust the IRS, while other polls show it ranks as the U.S.’s least favorite federal agency. Animosity aside, it’s helpful to know a few facts about the organization that takes so much of your hard-earned money. Here are a few to get you ready for April 18th.

1. PEOPLE HAVE HATED IT FROM THE BEGINNING.

In 1861, the U.S. government under President Lincoln created the first income tax as a way to cover Civil War expenses. It was a 3 percent flat tax on all incomes above $800. But before any taxes were collected, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase pointed out that they’d probably spend more money collecting taxes than the taxes themselves would generate [PDF]. The Revenue Act of 1861 was repealed and replaced with the far more important Revenue Act of 1862. Those who made between $600 and $10,000 a year were subject to a 3 percent tax, while those who made more than $10,000 contributed 5 percent. This ruled out most citizens (Union citizens, that is), but the measure was still deeply unpopular, especially when the rates were increased in 1864. In 1872, amidst costly Reconstruction efforts, the government did away with the income tax provision, choosing instead to collect taxes on beer, liquor, wine, and tobacco. But one of the longest-lasting effects of the Revenue Act of 1862 was that it created the position of Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the forerunner of the IRS.

2. IT HAS A LONG HISTORY OF SCANDALS.

J. Edgar Hoover

From lowly agents to presidents, those on the inside are too often seduced by the agency’s power. Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to target enemies like the publisher William Randolph Hearst, while Richard Nixon famously wielded it to investigate his Democratic opponents. Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the IRS audited the NAACP and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. According to investigative journalist David Burnham, “In almost every administration since the IRS’s inception, the information and power of the tax agency have been mobilized for explicitly political purposes.”

3. A FORMER IRS COMMISSIONER WAS CONVICTED OF TAX FRAUD.

You’d think the head of the nation’s tax-collecting agency would be on top of his finances, no? Well, in 1952 Joseph Nunan Jr. was found guilty of failing to report $86,000 in personal income. Included in this was $1800 he’d won after betting Truman would win the presidency in 1948.

4. IT GOT AL CAPONE CONVICTED.

For years authorities tried to nail the famed Chicago gangster, but nothing stuck. So they turned to the IRS, who put an agent named Frank Wilson on the case. Capone didn’t have a bank account or financial records and was careful to leave no paper trail, making the task monumentally difficult for Wilson and his team. After sifting through more than 2 million documents, Wilson finally came across payments to Capone that hadn’t been listed as income. This led to Capone’s arrest on tax evasion charges, and an 11-year prison sentence.

5. TAX DAY WAS ORIGINALLY MARCH 1ST.

Congress set the due date back in 1913 with the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, which formalized a nationwide income tax. A few years later, it pushed the date back to March 15th, and in 1955 revisions to the tax code moved the date back again to April 15th (note: this year’s due date is actually April 18th). So why not stick with the original due date? The IRS claims it needed more time to process returns, but tax experts believe that an increase in refunds for the middle class meant the agency wanted to hold onto its money longer and collect interest.

6. IT MISSES OUT ON 15 PERCENT OF WHAT IT’S OWED.

It’s called the tax gap, and it represents the funds that the IRS is owed but never receives due to taxpayers underreporting their income, making filing errors, and so on. The agency receives about $2 trillion annually, and says it misses out on an estimated $385 billion.

7. THE TAX CODE IS MORE THAN 75,000 PAGES LONG.

There’s a reason more and more people are relying on tax software and other services: The tax code is so complex, it makes War and Peace seem like a beach read. And it’s always changing. Between 2001 and 2012, the code was amended 4680 times—or more than once a day.

8. THEY’RE NOT BACKING UP THEIR DATA PROPERLY.

Many home computer users know the importance of backing up valuable information, but apparently the IRS doesn’t. A recent report from the Treasury Department found that the IRS didn’t have sufficient data backup for taxpayer records, nor did it have plans to implement any in the near future. “If the data is not backed up properly, a possibility exists that all taxpayer and management information could be lost and become unrecoverable,” read a press release from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The IRS said they plan to comply with the report’s recommendations.

9. YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING AUDITED ARE LOWER THAN EVER RIGHT NOW.

With fewer staffers and resources due to budget cuts, the IRS is performing audits on less than 1 percent of all tax returns. The exception is those individuals making more than $1 million, who have around a 10 percent chance of being audited (since the IRS knows it can make more money from errors on wealthy taxpayers’ returns). Avoid red flags, like overstating deductions and filing by hand, and your chances of getting audited are slim to none.

10. THE EMPLOYEES AREN’T AS UNHAPPY AS YOU’D THINK.

Working for the IRS may conjure images of mind numbing, repetitive tasks and endless rows of cubicles akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But according to surveys and employee reviews, the agency isn’t such a bad place to work. A survey taken by the Treasury Department several years ago found that 69 percent of IRS employees were satisfied with their jobs, and nearly two-thirds of employees say they’d recommend an agency job to a friend, according to Glassdoor.com

11. PEOPLE HAVE COME UP WITH SOME INTERESTING CHALLENGES TO TAX LAWS.

Legal challenges to the IRS and national tax laws have been quite colorful over the years. In 1954, a Wichita man named Arthur Porth argued that income tax amounted to “involuntary servitude” and was illegal under the Thirteenth Amendment. In 1969, Gladwin Lamb claimed his income was not taxable because it didn’t come in the form of gold or silver. More recently, tax protestors like Larken Rose have rallied around what’s called the 861 argument, named after the section of the tax code that outlines sources of taxable income, and which claims that only income that comes from “international commerce or foreign possessions” can be taxed. One famous case was actor Wesley Snipes, who cited the 861 argument when explaining why he didn’t pay taxes between 1999 and 2004. He served three years in prison. 

12. GOOD LUCK GETTING THEM ON THE PHONE.

The IRS receives more than 100 million phone calls each year from taxpayers seeking help, and around 40 percent are unable to speak with an agent. Budget cuts are mostly to blame, but the agency’s response may only be making matters worse. The Taxpayer Advocate Service, a watchdog group, said the IRS plans to reduce personal assistance further and increase its online presence—a plan that National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olsen says won’t address complex issues, and will put Americans who don’t own a computer at a disadvantage. 

13. FRAUD IS A MAJOR PROBLEM.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen

Experts estimate tax-refund fraud will bilk the IRS of $21 billion this year—a huge increase from the $6.5 billion taken just two years ago. The agency has moved to address the issue by doubling its fraud prevention staff. But enforcement could prove to be an uphill battle, since all clever fraudsters need to create a fake W-2 is a person’s name, date of birth and social security number. To make matters worse, last month hackers accessed identity information from an IRS web tool aimed at preventing identity theft. 

14. E-FILING STARTED BACK IN 1986.

Only five tax preparers agreed to participate in the pilot program. After collecting data from their clients’ returns, they called up an IRS processing center in Cincinnati and transferred everything to a device called a Mitron, which was essentially a tape drive hooked up to a modem. The Mitron then transferred the data to a Zilog supercomputer that processed the returns. The process was time-consuming, but it quickly improved. By 1990, the IRS was receiving more than 4 million returns through the new e-file system. 

15. NOW, MORE THAN 90 PERCENT OF TAXPAYERS E-FILE THEIR RETURNS.

The IRS really, really wants you to e-file. It’s about twice as expensive for the agency to process a written return as it is for an online return. And with fewer agents available to input them, it’s more time-consuming as well. Concerns over Internet security had taxpayers wary when e-filing first emerged, but the IRS sped up its refund deliveries and now it’s become the preferred method. 

All images courtesy of Getty 

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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