Friday, December 23, 2011

I-T SET TO TAP FOREIGN WHISTLEBLOWERSAmid mounting pressure from the Supreme Cou

I-T SET TO TAP FOREIGN WHISTLEBLOWERSAmid mounting pressure from the Supreme Court, the government is set to accept tip-offs from foreign informers and whistleblowers for fishing out information on tax evaders who have parked money in Swiss banks and tax havens. We have clear guidelines to pay informants and the same can be extended to cover foreign informers, a top tax official told ET. While rules allow tapping such sources, its an option that has never been explored by Indian authorities. India has been pushing for co-operation among countries in sharing information on tax evaders. At the G20 session in Paris over the weekend, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee renewed the pitch for securing old banking information, without explicitly naming Switzerland. Over the past few years, some governments in Europe have used stolen data accessed from whistleblowers to investigate and pass on information to other countries. A few months ago, France shared with New Delhi a list of more than 600 bank accounts of Indians in HSBC, Geneva. The list was stolen by a former HSBC employee. Germany, too, bought stolen data on scores of bank account holders of LGT, a bank in Liechtenstein. The decision to use foreign unofficial sources comes at a time the income-tax department is carrying out raids at residences of individuals whose names figure on the list of HSBC account holders. According to sources, there are indications that the department has also received details of several bank accounts of Indians with two other Swiss banks Julius Baer and Credit Suisse. In recent weeks residents with accounts in these banks have been approached, said a person familiar with the raids.However, we dont know how the I-T department got hold of the names, said the person familiar with the raids and ongoing investigation. Tax officials, however, refused to confirm this. Residents who parked undisclosed wealth abroad either operated direct numbered accounts or used a discretionary trust to hold the money. In such structures, an NRI member of the family functions as settlor of the trust and a tax professional in most cases a chartered accountant is appointed as the protector who looks after the interest of the settler, while other members of the family, most of whom may be resident Indians, are the beneficiaries of the trust. During recent raids, tax officials have landed up at residences of some of the trust beneficiaries. There is a panic. There are many who are willing to give self-declaration of their wealth and pay penalty despite the fact that in many cases there have been no transactions in these accounts for past 6-7 years. . . They want to avoid prosecution, said a senior chartered accountant. According to him, members of certain trades such as diamond exports have come under the glare of the tax department, which has also used passport numbers of residents to make enquiries on bank accounts with authorities in tax havens. Banks worldwide use passport numbers for customer verification. We are hoping to secure information on Indian tax evaders through various channels, including whistleblowers and other informants, especially since foreign banks, most often, do not disclose client details, said the tax official. However, taxmen will check the veracity of the information provided by informants before acting on it. In many cases, Indians hold legitimate money in foreign bank accounts and surely they cannot be subjected to any harassment, the official said. As per rules, the government is to pay informers only after tax evaders settle their dues. The term informer in the tax rule is generic. It does not say that the informer has to be a person of Indian nationality. So, we do not see any problem in covering foreigners or paying them, said the official. Usually, an informer is paid 10% of the amount collected as tax from the evader. Investigation on account holders of HSBC, Geneva, is on and the department is set to launch prosecution proceedings in cases where criminality is proven, said the official. In some cases, he said, the tax department had also found corroborative evidence to nail the evader. Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based thinktank, has estimated the size of Indias underground economy at 50% of the countrys GDP, or around $640 billion, at end-2008. Of this, about 72% of the illicit assets are held abroad. –

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