by Gail Perry

There’s nothing new about public humiliation as a form of punishment. In fact, until the 19th century, most forms of punishment included public humiliation.

And while our now-more-refined society tends to shun public celebration of punishment, some taxing agencies have chosen to return to a tried-and-true method of getting the job done. Publicizing the names of citizens who have neglected to pay their taxes in a timely fashion may not be as swift or gory a punishment as head-lopping, but those who utilize Internet lists for drawing attention to tax offenders believe that they have found an effective method of enforcement.

For centuries it has been common practice in both the United States and Europe to publicize the names of those who owe property tax, but property tax information is already in the public record.

Only recently have state revenue departments begun taking advantage of the Internet and listing the names of income tax offenders. In some states, the state legislature has added statutes authorizing the publication of names of income tax delinquents. Other states have taken the position that once a tax lien has been filed, the information is in the public domain.

“It’s amazing what a little embarrassment will do,” said Sarah Kaufman, director of communications at the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services. Connecticut attributes the collection of over $161 million in tax debts to its Internet listing of the top individual and business income tax offenders in the state. “Of the more than 2,200 accounts that have been eligible to be published, we have cleared over 1,800,” said Kaufman.

Connecticut’s successful tax offender outing program appears to be the longest running such program in the country. Launched in 1997, it has been a model for other state programs. Only the top 100 tax delinquents are listed on the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services Web site, and the list is constantly updated, removing the names of taxpayers who pay and replacing them with the next names on the revenue department’s most wanted list.

With names like CyberShame, DelinqNet, Project Collect Tax, Debtor’s Corner, and Caught in the Web, delinquent taxpayer lists now appear on the revenue department Web sites of Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Georgia’s list is the most recent addition to the group, having just gone live in February of this year. Delinquent taxpayer lists for Illinois and Connecticut are temporarily offline while the tax agencies rearrange their Web sites. Other states are considering legislation to enable the public disclosure of tax offenders.

Typically, the Internet lists are publicized widely in the states, not only to facilitate the public humiliation phase of the treatment, but also to give tax offenders plenty of notice about the existence of the lists, encouraging them to clear up their accounts before their names are even posted.

State revenue departments are convinced that the Internet lists produce positive responses from taxpaying citizens. “The public as a whole is very receptive to it,” said Danny Brown, public information director for the Louisiana Department of Revenue. “They understand that these people are chronically delinquent taxpayers. These people are not being good citizens, they’re not following the law, not paying their fair share. I’ve only heard negative responses from those who are on the list!”

Louisiana took advantage of a variety of media outlets when it launched its CyberShame site in 2001. “When we kicked the program off, we had a press conference, the secretary did a number of speaking engagements, we did newspaper press releases, we did some talk shows — it was quite a big splash,” said Brown.

Revenue departments attempt to contact the tax delinquents before their names are posted, but in some cases current addresses are not available. Most states with online lists of delinquent taxpayers refrain from listing taxpayers who are protected by a stay under the Federal Bankruptcy Code, and taxpayers that have set up a payment plan with the taxing authority may also avoid the publicity.

However, taxpayers in a payment plan must stay current with their payments or they can end up back on the list. “It’s possible someone can go on a payment plan, we take them off the list, the plan lapses, and after 90 days they’re back up again,” Kaufman warned.

Once a person or business makes the list, their personal information is available for the world to see. The typical list includes names, known addresses, types of tax outstanding, the period of time covered by the tax liability, and the amount owing the government.

“Your friends, your neighbors, your family members can go on the Web site and see your name and find out you haven’t been paying the taxes that you should,” said Kaufman.

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