Why the ATO is checking your Facebook page


Published on

If your Facebook feed is full of photos of lavish holidays and luxury cars but you cry poor at tax time, the tax office could have you in its sights, writes Sharyn McCowen.

The ATO is turning to improved data tracking methods as well as less conventional monitoring tactics to tighten the net on people with perceived wealth, says a leading tax specialist.

Individuals and businesses have been on high alert since the federal government announced last year its intention to raise $1 billion in new revenue from tax audit activity.

If your Facebook feed is full of photos of lavish holidays and luxury cars but you cry poor at tax time, the tax office could have you in its sights, writes Sharyn McCowen.

"Don't be under any misconception, the ATO is actively monitoring individuals through their social media pages, whether their kids are registered in private schools, their motor vehicle registrations and property search titles," says Murray Howlett, tax partner with chartered accountants Pilot Partners.

"With businesses they're looking for any inconsistencies in your tax filing records, whether your GST filings reconcile with your income tax filings and whatever else they can find on the public record."

Technology had made it easier for the tax office to track spending habits, including cross-border and e-commerce transactions, and many people are being caught out.

"The ATO's data tracking and interpretation capabilities have improved exponentially over recent years and they're looking to make sense of the data," says Howlett.

Taxpayers should assume the ATO has access to banking records, property titles, credit card records and even who paid their child's school fees.

facebook twitter instagram social media marketing advertising sam henderson ato australian tax office

The easiest way for it to cross-check is via its own records or those maintained by another government body, he says.

"For example, we know that the ATO monitors records of land and vehicle ownership, particularly when changes in ownership occur. In more recent times we are starting to see them employ more abstract methods to perform their checks.

"For example, they have run a program where they contacted private schools to understand who was paying the school fees for the students that attend.

"There was also a story doing the rounds last year of a tax audit undertaken on the basis of a seemingly wealthy lifestyle being promoted in a person's social media that appeared unsustainable based on the income recorded in their tax returns.

"I have also sat in on ATO audits where they have mentioned the number of garages at a house or business address following a street-view search on Google maps."

On one occasion, a client of Howlett was asked about the cost of renovations to his house that never occurred, after the ATO sourced draft plans submitted to the local council for approval years earlier.

Tax specialists are seeing an increase in the number of ATO inquiries stemming from these apparent inconsistencies, says Howlett.

"When they do arise, the ATO arrives with a 'please explain' letter which makes it the taxpayer's problem to prove where the money came from to avoid a tax bill."

Howlett's advice is to promptly respond to any query from the tax office.

"If the data does shows an inconsistency you need to be able to respond quickly to the tax office and explain why there's a difference," he says.

"As a general rule, be able to anticipate a query from the ATO and have the ability to shut it down swiftly. Responding quickly and appropriately sends a clear message to the ATO that you have strong systems in place."

Get stories like this in our newsletters.

Related Stories


Sharyn McCowen is Money's digital editor. She has a degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University, and was a newspaper reporter for 10 years before moving to magazines and finance.
March 16, 2017 8.58am

So, if I earn money from gambling at the TAB and I'm really good at it (but it is only a hobby, NOT a business - because in the latter case, I doubt they would let me deduct my losses !) or if I got given that money from my relatives over a number of years and saved it, then how do they expect me to prove that, because there's no receipts involved ?!

If I give my wife all the money that I earn and she pays the bills (because it's easier that way), it will be a convoluted exercise for not much gain if they wanted to audit that...and if I earn the money and choose to send my kids to a private school (which, in itself, doesn't mean I am wealthy, it just means that I give up things like a new car, holidays etc. to give my kids the best start I can in life), it's none of their business, frankly.

They should spend their time going after those companies who have 'convenient' tax arrangements in other domiciles for millions / billions in tax, rather than hard working battlers who perhaps put a zero in the wrong place.

just a thought
March 21, 2017 4.06am