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Taxman uses Google Earth Pro to nab tax dodgers

Spy in the sky
Wed Feb 28 2007, 09:07
A PROVINCIAL revenue agency down in Argentina is using Google Earth Pro to find tax dodgers. With this approach, the taxman for the Buenos Aires province detected 1184030 square feet of undeclared property.

Montoya, the BA Province Taxman became famous because of his aggressive approach in tracking and pursuing tax dodgers - specially seen aggressive in a country where tax dodging has been a national sport, particularly among the wealthy -the bottom of society pays through the nose 21% VAT when purchasing anything.

A list of alleged debtors is published by the provincial Public Revenue Service on the web, but as is usual in him, he pressed for more. Google's Earth Pro subscription allows the agency to import site plans and property lists, and export high-quality images. It also allows to transfer "up to 2,500 locations by address or geospatial coordinates from a spreadsheet" and includes measurement tools -square feet, mile, acreage, and the like- by point and clicking on the screen.

Mr. Santiago Montoya, is described at a Columbia University web page as the person responsible for "instituting tax policies that ultimately facilitated financial recovery". He has served as Secretary of the Department of Public Revenue of the Buenos Aires province since 2001, and said last week that by using Google's satellite images and Google Earth Pro, they were able to identify 362 undeclared finished houses and 284 construction sites, all spread in four exclusive gated country clubs, plus 157906 square feet of undeclared constructions in the open flea market known as “La Salada”. All these undeclared constructions amount to around half a million dollars in unpaid Property Tax. In Argentina the tax-levying power is shared by the Federal and Provincial Governments, and Property Tax is collected by the B.A. province.

Part of Montoya's reforms at the Province's tax office included making payments easy: instead of requiring payment only in cash and at authorized banks, taxpayers are able to opt for automatic debit from bank accounts, payment over the web, via ATM machines, or by phone. He also created an "ID card" of sorts, dubbed "Rentas Global card", which "not only made payment easier but also was attached to an innovative awards programme", which awarded “well-behaved” taxpayers with a reduction in their taxes or discounts at stores, cinemas and other outlets. This programme has the slogan, "Those who comply, win", and allows cardholders to get 10% discount at supermarkets, or get an extra free movie when renting from Blockbuster, for instance.

Some critics of the tax man -specially at local paper La Nacion who represents the voice of the wealthy elite- were quick to point out that Google's satellite imagery for Argentina is less detailed and in some instances not updated as often as those for the Northern Hemisphere, saying that Google Earth's images can be "up to three years old". That claim just gives more reason to the tax man's argument with regards to tax dodging, as nobody could say that they "forgot" to declare a luxury house at a gated country club... for the last three consecutive years.

Buenos Aires, Argentina's richest province, has 2.5 million registered taxpayers, most of whom have regularised their tax situation. Those caught red-handed with the help of Google's software and the satellite eyes in the sky are being summoned by the taxman and given 15 days to declare their property, after which taxes will be collected retroactively from the day the finished construction was photographed.

While this is surely not as sophisticated a scheme as some thought up by the taxman in Blighty, this use of Google Earth Pro will surely raise eyebrows in other countries. µ

Google Earth Pro
Alternative Tax Policies in Post-Crisis Argentina (PDF) @ Columbia University
Tax Reforms in BA Province -Slideshow presented at Columbia Univ. Nov 2006
BBC: Argentina tackling tax evaders
UK: Revenue urges you to expose tax dodgers
UK: Robot targets eBay tax dodgers
Tax avoidance by the super-rich is costing Blighty £10bn per year
The Great American Tax Dodge
Tax Evasion by the Super Rich is Costing the U.S. Millions
List of the Biggest Corporate Tax Dodgers who operate from tax havens
Aerial oblique photography finds niche in homeland security

See also
Google Earth sees naked people
Google Earth is "a terrorist's tool of choice"


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