sparkle-illustration

Register for a NerdWallet account to access simple tax filing for a $50 flat fee, powered by 

ColumnTax Logo

7 Reasons the IRS Will Audit You

Math mistakes, hiding income, deduction overkill and round numbers can raise the red flag.
Tina Orem
By Tina Orem 
Updated
Edited by Chris Hutchison

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

What is an IRS audit?

An IRS audit is an examination or review of your information and accounts to ensure you're reporting things correctly, following the tax laws, and that your reported tax amount is correct. In other words, the IRS is simply double-checking your numbers to make sure you don’t have any discrepancies in your return.

Sometimes state tax authorities do audits, too. If you’re telling the truth, and the whole truth, you needn't worry. Nothing is inherently sinister about an IRS audit or state audit. However, people who are consciously cheating the system do have reason to be concerned.

Video preview image

Why the IRS audits people

The IRS conducts tax audits to minimize the “tax gap,” or the difference between what the IRS is owed and what the IRS actually receives. Sometimes a tax return is selected for audit at random, the agency says. Other times, the IRS might audit you because your return involves transactions with another audited return — such as an investor or business partner.

Internal Revenue Service. IRS Audits. Accessed Apr 10, 2023.
But the IRS often selects taxpayers based on suspicious activity.

NerdWalletTaxes Logo

Simple tax filing with a $50 flat fee for every scenario

With NerdWallet Taxes powered by Column Tax, registered NerdWallet members pay one fee, regardless of your tax situation. Plus, you'll get free support from tax experts. Sign up for access today.

for a NerdWallet account

checkmark

Transparent pricing

Hassle-free tax filing* is $50 for all tax situations — no hidden costs or fees.
checkmark

Maximum refund guaranteed

Get every dollar you deserve* when you file with this tax product, powered by Column Tax.
checkmark

Faster filing

File up to 2x faster than traditional options.* Get your refund, and get on with your life.

*guaranteed by Column Tax

illustration

Common IRS audit triggers

Here are seven of the biggest red flags likely to land you in the IRS audit hot seat.

1. Making math errors

When the IRS starts investigating, “oops” isn’t going to cut it. Don’t make mistakes. This applies to everyone who must file taxes. Don’t accidentally write a 3 instead of an 8. Don’t get distracted and forget to include that final zero. Mistakes happen, but make sure you double- and triple-check your numbers if you’re doing your own taxes. You’ll be hit with fines regardless of whether your mistake was intentional. If your math is a little shaky, using good tax preparation software or a tax preparer near you can help you avoid unfortunate errors that can lead to an IRS audit.

2. Failing to report some income

Easy way to score an IRS audit? Don’t report part of your income.

Let’s say you’re employed herding sheep for Farmer Joe and you pick up a little extra cash writing articles for a sheep-shearing publication on a freelance basis. You may be tempted to submit only the W-2 form from your herding job and keep the freelance writing income on your Form 1099 under wraps.

A 1099 reports nonwage income from things such as freelancing, stock dividends and interest. One type of 1099, the 1099-NEC, typically reports amounts paid to independent contractors.

Well, guess what? The IRS already knows about income listed on your 1099 because the publication sent it a copy, so it’s only a matter of time before it discovers your omission.

3. Claiming too many charitable donations

If you made significant contributions to charity, you’re eligible for some well-deserved deductions. This bit of advice is common sense: Don’t report false donations. If you don’t have the proper documentation to prove the validity of your contribution, don’t claim it. Pretty simple. Claiming $10,000 in charitable deductions on your $40,000 salary is likely to raise some eyebrows.

NerdWalletTaxes Logo

Simple tax filing with a $50 flat fee for every scenario

With NerdWallet Taxes powered by Column Tax, registered NerdWallet members pay one fee, regardless of your tax situation. Plus, you'll get free support from tax experts. Sign up for access today.

for a NerdWallet account

illustration

4. Reporting too many losses on a Schedule C

This one is for the self-employed. If you are your own boss, you might be tempted to hide income by filing personal expenses as business expenses. But before you write off your new ski boots, consider the suspicion that too many reported losses can arouse. The IRS may begin to wonder how your business is staying afloat. IRS Publication 535 has details.

IRS. IRS Publication 535. Accessed Apr 10, 2023.

5. Deducting too many business expenses

Along the same lines as reporting too many losses is reporting too many expenses. To be eligible for a deduction, purchases must be 1) ordinary and 2) necessary to your business. A professional artist could probably claim paint and paintbrushes because such items meet both requirements. A lawyer who paints for fun and doesn’t turn a profit on the works may have a problem. The questions to ask are: Was the purchase common and accepted in the trade or business? Was it helpful and appropriate for the trade or business?

6. Claiming a home office deduction

Home office deductions are rife with fraud. It may be tempting to give yourself undeserved deductions for expenses that don’t technically qualify. The IRS narrowly defines the home office deduction as reserved for people who use part of their home “exclusively and regularly for your trade or business.” That means a home office can qualify if you use it for work and work only. Occasionally answering emails on your laptop in front of your TV probably doesn’t qualify your living room as a deductible office space. Claiming a home office deduction may be more defensible if you have set off a section of your home strictly for business purposes. Be honest when you report expenses and measurements.

7. Using nice, neat, round numbers

In all likelihood, the numbers on your 1040 form and other tax documents will not be in simple, clean intervals of $100. When making your calculations, be precise and avoid making estimations. Round to the nearest dollar, not the nearest hundred. Say you’re a photographer claiming a $495.25 lens as a business expense; round that to $495, not to $500. An even $500 is somewhat unlikely, and the IRS may ask for proof.

Where does an IRS audit take place?

If you're selected for an audit, the IRS will send you a letter about it first. The audit may be conducted entirely by mail or through a face-to-face interview at a local IRS office, your home, your tax preparer's office or your business.

Internal Revenue Service. IRS Audits. Accessed Apr 28, 2023.
Wherever the audit occurs, you may be asked to supply certain records that the IRS examiner will need to complete their review. For this reason, the agency says taxpayers should make sure to always keep their tax records for at least three years after filing, though in some circumstances the IRS can audit a tax return from up to six years back.

At the end of the audit, the examiner can either determine that no further changes are needed to the return, or they will provide you with a proposed set of next steps and/or bill to address the issue resulting from the audit. If you disagree with the examiner's conclusions, the agency allows you to meet with an IRS manager, seek mediation or file an appeal.

Internal Revenue Service. IRS Audits. Accessed Apr 28, 2023.

Ramona Paden contributed to this article.

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.
NerdWalletTaxes Logo

Simple tax filing with a $50 flat fee for every scenario

With NerdWallet Taxes powered by Column Tax, registered NerdWallet members pay one fee, regardless of your tax situation. Plus, you'll get free support from tax experts. Sign up for access today.

for a NerdWallet account

Person in NerdWallet attire pointing to the NerdWallet Tax Filing CTA button.