Of all potential bureaucratic ordeals, tax audits connote a level of dread few others can match. The Internal Revenue Service processed 586.1 million tax returns between 2012 and 2015 and audited 4.5 million of them.
With a full-time staff of just 76,800, the IRS has limited capacity to ensure every American pays exactly what he or she owes. But the IRS does not choose tax returns to be audited entirely at random. Tax returns that do not match established patterns are at increased risk of an audit. And though filing by the book is the best way to avoid an audit, it is by no means a guarantee.
Americans filing taxes this year should take comfort knowing that the likelihood of being selected for an audit is low. Each year, there are about 7.7 audits for every 1,000 returns. Still, in nearly every state, there is at least one county where the likelihood of being targeted by the IRS is higher than average. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed audit rates in over 3,000 counties, county equivalents, and independent cities to determine where audits are most common in every state.
While conventional wisdom may suggest wealthier Americans are more likely to avoid paying taxes, and are therefore more likely audit candidates, the opposite appears to be true. Poverty is more common in 43 of the 50 counties on this list than it is across the state as a whole — and many of these counties rank as the poorest county in the state.
This is no coincidence. Many low-income households claim the earned income tax credit — or EITC — a program designed to ease financial hardship for the working poor. According to a 2018 report released by ProPublica, a non-profit investigative publication, EITC recipients are disproportionately targeted for audit to better ensure no one is unfairly taking advantage of the system. Further reinforcing evidence of the trend, only three counties on this list have a higher median annual household income than the median nationwide of $57,652.
To identify the county where you are most likely to be audited in every state, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the number of audits per 1,000 tax returns in 3,142 counties, county equivalents, and independent cities. Audit rates were calculated by tax analysis website, Tax Notes, using four years of data — from 2012 to 2015. State audit rates were calculated by averaging county-level data. Median household income, poverty rates, and educational attainment rates are five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey.