The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network is seeing a “concerning” increase in state and federal payroll tax evasion and workers’ compensation fraud in the U.S. residential and commercial real estate construction industries.

FinCEN is committed to combating fraud by shedding light on how illicit actors within the construction industry are using shell corporations and other tactics to commit workers’ compensation fraud and avoid payroll taxes,” FinCEN Acting Director Himamauli Das said in a statement.

The agency in a FinCEN Notice issued August 15, 2023, highlighted how companies evade payroll taxes. Step one has construction contractors writing checks payable to the shell corporation, which creates the façade that the shell company is performing construction projects. Step two sees the shell company operator deposit cash the checks at a check cashing facility or deposit them into a shell company bank account. Step three sees the shell company return the cash to the construction contractor, minus a fee, for renting the workers’ compensation insurance policy and conducting payroll-related transactions. The final step is the construction contractors using the cash to pay the workers without withholding appropriate payroll-related taxes or paying any workers’ compensation premiums.

The notice also draws attention “a range of red flags to assist financial institutions in detecting, preventing, and reporting suspicions transactions associated with shell companies perpetrating payrolltax evasion and workers’ compensation fraud in the construction industry.” Among the 11 red flags highlighted are:

  • The customer is a new (i.e., less than two years old) small construction company specializing in one type of construction trade (e.g., framing, drywall, stucco, masonry, etc.) with minimal online presence and has indicators of being a shell company;
  • Beneficial owners of the shell company have no known prior involvement with, or in, the construction industry, and the individual opening the account provides a non-U.S. passport as a form of identification;
  • A customer receives weekly deposits in their account that exceed normal account activity from several construction contractors involved in multiple construction trades;
  • Large volumes of checks for under $1,000 are drawn on the company’s bank account and made payable to separate individuals (i.e., the workers) which are subsequently negotiated for cash by the payee, and
  • The company’s bank account has minimal to no tax- or payroll-related payments to the Internal Revenue Service, state and local tax authorities, or a third-party payroll company despite a large volume of deposits from client.

The statement did not provide any statistical data that reflect the rise in payroll tax evasion or workers’ compensation fraud, but said that every year, “state and federal tax authorities lose hundreds of millions of dollars to these schemes, which are perpetrated by illicit actors primarily through banks and check cashers.”

The notice also reminds financial institutions’ obligations to file a suspicious activity report if a transaction could be conducted with the intent for fraud or tax evasion, and it provides instructions on how to file the SAR.

By Gregory Twachtman, Washington News Editor