CLEVELAND - The IRS says most people should keep tax records for 3-7 years. But if you live in Ohio, you better keep them for life. Residents are receiving notices they owe taxes from decades ago. And if they can't prove they don't owe the money, they better be prepared to pay up...or else.
A lien against his home.
A mark on his credit.
And no more tax refunds.
That's what Herman Jenkins is facing unless he pays seven thousand dollars in taxes the State says he owes...from 1996.
"My immediate question was why wait until 2017 to contact me," asked Jenkins.
Why? Because they can.
According to Ohio law, the State can wait 7 years to hit you with a tax lien. And it can stay there for up to 40 years, unless of course you pay up.
Jenkins only found out when the kept his tax refund. That's despite, he says, getting refunds for the past 15 years. So clearly they could have contacted him, sometime over the past two decades.
"The only thing I have received from them, still to this day, is a collection letter of what you owe and nothing else," he claims.
"So basically they could make the entire thing up," I asked.
"Yep they could make the entire thing up," he replied.
That's because government debt collectors aren't bound by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which requires them to prove you owe the money.
"It's almost like the wild west for these collectors," say former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann.
He says he knows from experience that State Agencies don't do a very good job of record keeping, and consumers have very little recourse.
"They've outsourced to law firms who want to get paid, so they have no incentive to help you figure out you owe money because you can't get sued for messing up,” he says.
I called the Ohio Department of Taxation, who told me that all it does is notify the Attorney General that taxes haven't been paid.
"Once it's handed over to the Attorney General, it's a business matter for them to resolve," said spokesperson Gary Gudmundson.
When I called the AG's office, they said it's just acting on behalf of the Department of Taxation.
"How is he first hearing about this 20 years later?" I asked a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office.
They said they sent him a letter...in 1996, but couldn't show proof.
"So how did I receive a refund in 2001, all the way up to 2016 and there was never an offset," asked Jenkins.
His case is mild compared to those we found on the consumer complaint website Ripoff Report,
like one taxpayer who says he has all the documentation, including the check cashed by the State.
Another taxpayer claims he filed, but is being fined $5,000 just for the collector’s legal fees.
"You do have a right to appeal, but essentially the folks seeking your money are deciding on your appeal,” said Dann.
So it now comes down to David versus two Goliaths.
But Jenkins says he'll keep fighting until he wins, or ends up having to pay.
"I can't risk my credit and that is the strong arm tactic," Jenkins said.
Now, the only way this will change is if the laws change. That’s why I called Columbus asking them to do something. Neither the Senate nor the House got anyone to talk to me. So as I've said before, we all have to keep calling our representatives and demand action. You could find their number on the State’s website. And if you don't have a computer, call me and I'll find it for you.
Click Ohio Legislators to find your local representative.
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