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Tax shelters for fun - or fraud

It's World Series season, and you suddenly have the chance to buy a baseball team - as a tax shelter of course. The new franchise has suddenly sprung up in Anchorage, Alaska, and you can get in on the deal before ice covers the playing field.

Should you buy it for $50,000 and take a tax write-off of $100,000 this tax year, or should you pass it up?

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Fortunately, the decision is only pretend. You are playing ''Stick the IRS!, '' a new board game about tax shelters.

But some of the more questionable tax shelters on the board were inspired by real-life shelters, the creators of the game pointed out the other day over lunch in New York.

''This is the time of year when the spooks and goblins come out to play,'' James P. Landis, a lawyer, noted, referring to shady tax shelters that thrive in the fall before the tax year ends, as well as to Halloween creatures of the night.

Mr. Landis and his partner in creating the game, Carol Lefcourt, who's a certified financial planner, recall seeing some tax shelters that could raise the hair on the back of Frankenstein's neck.

For example, there was a coal mining deal that was being sold to investors last Dec. 22, practically Christmas Eve. Landis recalls looking into the deal for a client. The prospectus looked very clean - engineering reports, surveys, maps, and accountants' statements. One item stood out: a letter from the prospective coal company's lawyer. The lawyer said that if the tax shelter were challenged by the Internal Revenue Service, he would defend it right to the Supreme Court at no cost to the buyer of the shelter.

Landis thought, ''No attorney would do that.'' So he called the phone number listed for the lawyer. ''When the phone was answered,'' he recalls, ''I could hear all kinds of noise in the background. The kind you hear in boiler rooms.'' Boiler rooms - those phone centers where salesmen pressure people into buying commodities, tax shelters, or other items and then close up their shop later, often skipping town with the proceeds.

A voice at the other end of the phone told Landis that the coal tax shelter was ''sold out'' and no longer available. His client then called him back to report that a stockbroker assured him he could still buy in. On hearing his lawyer's report, however, the client backed off.

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Sometime later Forbes magazine featured that particular coal company - which turned out to be in the middle of a national park - in a story about unscrupulous promoters in the tax shelter game.

Still other shelters that Landis and Lefcourt say they wouldn't touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole have involved commodity straddles (involving futures contracts), bull seamen, and beaver ranches. (Landis visited the location of the commodity tax straddle and discovered the address to be that of a laundromat.) ''What this shows,'' he says, ''is that you really have to investigate your tax shelters. If I have a client buying railroad cars, I visit the manufacturer of the cars and the railroad that's running them.''

Even with the new lower tax brackets, Landis and Lefcourt figure that individuals will still be looking at tax shelters. ''The same person who doesn't want to pay 70 percent of his income in taxes doesn't want to pay 50 percent,'' Lefcourt states. The new tax law is particularly beneficial for equipment leasing and research-and-development programs, but is less beneficial for moviemaking. Commodity straddles have been eliminated.

When buying a tax shelter, the duo says to make reasonably certain first that it's an investment you will make money on. ''The tax benefits are secondary,'' he says. Second, have a professional person review how much money you need to invest and the prospective tax shelter. Finally, if it's after Halloween, be especially suspicious. That's the time when crooks seem to be active in offering fake shelters to people seeking end-of-year tax dodges.

As for baseball teams in Anchorage, you can try your hand at mastering tax shelters for $19.95 when the games go on sale at 300 or so retail stores across the country around the first of next month. The sale price probably isn't tax deductible, although lawyer Landis says it may be if a person considers the game instructional enough. ''It depends on how you interpret Section 212, comma, as amended, period,'' he says in lawyerlike litany.

* * * Profit taking last week trimmed back the market's rebound from its August-September debacle. For the week, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 21 .31 points, falling to 851.69. The stocks slipped, despite a continued drop in interest rates, because of signs the economy is flagging. Many banks lowered their prime interest rate to 18 percent. bankers expect the rates will continue their drop over the next few weeks. Among the active stocks last week, Grumman lost several points after a federal judge temporarily blocked LTV Inc. from acquiring the aerospace concern. The stock of another takeover target, Sunbeam, soared as Allegheny International outbid IC Industries for the appliance manufacturer.

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