Personal Finance

Cheat on taxes? Never! (Really)

When it comes to taxes, are we a nation of cheaters?
When it comes to taxes, are we a nation of cheaters?

We may grouse—a lot—about paying our taxes, but when push comes to shove most people think cheating on your taxes is not OK.


The IRS Oversight Board's annual taxpayer survey finds that 86 percent of Americans thinks it's not at all acceptable to cheat on taxes. Most people surveyed also said they generally agreed that everyone who cheats should be held accountable.

What's more, the vast majority of Americans—95 percent—mostly or completely agree that it's every American's civic duty to pay taxes.

(Read more: Here's what Americans really do with tax refunds)

It's not mainly a fear of getting caught that motivates people to be honest. More than nine in 10 of those surveyed said personal integrity influences whether they honestly report and pay their taxes. By contrast, just six in 10 said fear of an audit influenced their tax compliance.

Americans' attitudes about whether it's OK to fudge their taxes have stayed pretty steady over the years—despite the common complaints about our notoriously confusing tax system.

Experts say that may be because people have conflicting impulses about taxes.

"People may say that they believe in compliance, but that doesn't mean that they do it," said Stuart Green, a law professor at Rutgers School of Law who has studied white-collar crime.

(Read more: Look who's paying the marriage penalty this year)

These Americans give Uncle Sam a 'handout'
These Americans give Uncle Sam a 'handout'

People also may have different views of what constitutes a tax cheat. Our modern tax system includes so many breaks, loopholes and other quirks that Green said it can seem like a difficult line between tax evasion (actively cheating on taxes) and tax avoidance.

"Tax avoidance is what we pay our accountants all that money to do for us," he said. "No one thinks there's anything wrong with that."

A more telling statistic may be how many people the IRS considers to be tax cheats.

In the 2006 tax year, the most recent data available, the IRS estimates that about 83 percent of taxpayers paid their taxes accurately and on time. Among the remaining 17 or so percent, the most common offense was under-reporting income, followed by not filing taxes and underpaying taxes.

After collecting late payments and other enforcement action, the IRS estimated that for the 2006 tax year it did not collect $385 billion owed from individuals and businesses.

(Read more: How patriotic! Paying the government extra—voluntarily)

The taxpayer attitude survey was conducted last August by outside polling firm GfK Custom Research. The pollsters do not say at the beginning of the survey that it is being conducted on behalf of the IRS Oversight Board, but after respondents have answered all the questions it does indicate that the survey is related to the IRS.

The nine-member oversight board was created by Congress to oversee the IRS.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.