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How to keep the IRS auditors at bay

Elizabeth Simpson | The Image Bank | Getty Images

It's tax preparation time again, which means it's time to collect your records and hope for the best. it's also a time when taxpayers quake at the thought of a potential audit.

The good news is your odds of being audited are low: In 2012, the latest year for which the IRS has released data, just 1 percent of all taxpayers were audited. And really, honest taxpayers have nothing to fear but inconvenience from an audit.

"To me, the real question is not how do I avoid an audit but how do I make sure I'm ready for an audit," said Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst at H&R Block's Tax Institute.

Still, it's worth knowing what elements in your filing might catch the eye of the IRS. This year, there are some long-standing potential triggers, but also some new ones.

For starters, high earners are eye-catching as far as the IRS is concerned. While 55 percent of taxpayers stood less than a 1 percent chance of having their return for 2011 audited, taxpayers with adjusted gross income of $1.5 million or more for that year stood an 8.9 percent chance of getting a second look, according to the latest data from the IRS. Some 27.4 percent of returns from taxpayers with incomes of $10 million or more were examined.

(Read more: IRS top-earner audit team picks off 1 in 8)

In part, that's a response to lean budgets at the IRS, Perlman said. "In general, with the limited resources, the IRS is going to be looking for the biggest bang for its buck. So it is going to go after things that are more likely to yield results."

Large deductions can also raise eyebrows. Melissa Labant, director of tax advocacy at the American Institute of CPAs, says tax practitioners report that they are receiving letters from the IRS on large deductions.

For example, you may be entitled to deduct casualty losses from natural disasters, or losses from theft. But be careful—if your insurance company reimburses you, those deductions are not allowed.

"I think a lot of taxpayers may accidentally deduct things that they don't realize are going to be paid by insurance," Labant said.

(Read more: Nine wackiest tax deductions)

Large in-kind donations can also catch an auditor's eye, she added. "If you have a significant amount of noncash deductions—perhaps you donated a car or other items—that could draw some attention."

For taxpayers with multiple sources of income, it's important to make sure that the income you report squares with what is reported separately to the IRS by the people paying you. This is straightforward if you have a single employer and your investments are not complicated. But consultants and freelancers need to keep careful records.

(Read more: Five tax mistakes most likely to spur an audit)

Another common red flag is the home office deduction. The IRS has simplified the rules for calculating this deduction. Now taxpayers can simply multiply the square footage of their home office by $5, for a maximum deduction of $1,500. But the standards for taking the deduction still apply, Perlman warns.

"It still has to be the place you use regularly and exclusively for your business," she said. "Just because you're self-employed doesn't mean you get to smack $1,500 down."

(Read more: Last-minute tax tips for small-business owners)

Being aware of changes in the tax code can help protect you from extra scrutiny. For example, it used to be possible to deduct medical expenses that exceeded 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income, but now they have to exceed 10 percent for most taxpayers.

Individuals with income over $200,000 and couples with income greater than $250,000 may face a new Medicare payroll tax and a surtax on net investment income. And older taxpayers receiving required distributions from an IRA can no longer distribute that money to charity tax-free.

Tax experts do agree on one strategy for any time the IRS may initiate an audit.

"If you do get a letter, don't sit on it," Labant said. "Perhaps the IRS just needs more information. It doesn't necessarily mean you made a mistake on your return."

—By Kelley Holland, Special to CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @KKelleyHolland.

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