Attention procrastinators: Although the federal income tax filing deadline is looming, don't be in such a rush to finish your return that you get sloppy.
Returns that include miscalculations and omissions are some of the most common triggers for an audit, according to the tax professionals at H and R Block.
Most individual audits, roughly 75 percent, are "correspondence" audits in which the Internal Revenue Service and taxpayers resolve issues through the mail.
"It may be something you can clear up with a simple phone call," said Ann Flowers, an H and R Block enrolled agent, which is a tax professional authorized by the federal government to represent taxpayers during audits.
There are also field audits, in which an IRS agent comes to a house or business.
Last is the dreaded office audit, in which taxpayers are required to visit an IRS office.
Overall, the probability of an individual being audited is low -- about 1 percent. The odds go up to about 2.5 percent for households earning $200,000 to $1 million and for sole proprietors of small businesses, and to about 8.5 percent for households making more than $1 million, according to the 2010 IRS data book.
Although the IRS keeps audit criteria under wraps, tax experts have identified missteps and other factors they say increase the chances of triggering agency scrutiny.
Not reporting all income is a major audit trigger. The omission is easily discovered by an IRS document-matching program that verifies income claimed on returns against what is reported to the agency on statements such as W-2 wage forms, 1099 forms for interest, dividends and the sale of stock, and W-2G forms for reporting gambling winnings over a certain amount.
Itemized deductions for medical expenses, charitable giving and unreimbursed mileage expenses that are higher than average for the taxpayer's income level can also raise a red flag.
Anything out of the norm could raise suspicion, Flowers said.
For example, showing losses year after year on rental property, which are recorded on Schedule E, tends to be a trigger, she said.
IRS computers assign numeric scores to all tax returns, rating them on such things as the potential for unreported income based on the agency's experience with similar returns.
"If your return scores too high, they will check your return," Flowers said.
About 30 percent of individual returns audited in fiscal 2010 claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit. But that doesn't necessarily mean the deduction wasn't legitimate.
Flowers emphasized that people should not let fear of an audit prevent them from taking deductions to which they are entitled.
"I spend more time reassuring people who have receipts to take a deduction," she said. If you keep good records, "Don't be afraid of the IRS."
If you end up being audited, you can represent yourself or hire a tax professional to represent you. If someone prepared your return, notify him or her immediately, Flowers said.
It's important to cooperate with the agency, she said. When you get a letter, answer it. "It's amazing how many people ignore letters they receive -- audit or correspondence letters. I don't know if it's denial, or why," Flowers said.
"Never ignore a letter. The IRS is not going to go away."
The normal April 15 tax- filing deadline was pushed to April 18 this year because of the Emancipation Day holiday in the nation's capital.
(Reach reporter Patricia Sabatini at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)