Drop That 1040 Form!


Here's a pitch for the next great TV procedural: The main characters are a group of eight special agents burrowed inside of the seedy underbelly of Manhattan's criminals. These investigators are just a fraction of the 2,600 crime-fighting agents nationwide—a cadre of highly trained professionals who have no equal in American law enforcement. They follow up on leads, go undercover, and execute search warrants, all in the hope of bringing a little more justice to America. And, yes, there will be drug busts. The characters won't be cookie-cutter gruff cops as on all the other police dramas. No, all of our agents will have a quirk nobody sees coming:

They're accountants.

I'm talking about IRS special agents—perhaps the most badass number crunchers on the planet. They work on classified cases, flash their badges when they go out on interviews, and testify in court. They're fully trained law enforcers, just like operatives from the FBI, DEA, and ICE. They just happen to have taken five semesters worth of accounting classes, and they just happen to work for the IRS. Suggestions for the show's title are welcome, but for now we'll go with the only IRS term of art that also sounds like police-speak: 1040.

The special agents belong to a 4,000-strong segment of the IRS called the criminal investigation division. These aren't the jackboot auditors who caused trouble in the late '90s. These guys only go after the bad guys who display criminal intent. They're tasked with investigating any crime that skirts tax law, which essentially means any crime that involves money. They're the utility players of the federal-law-enforcement world, working with agents from a host of different departments to run busts on a host of different crimes. Samples of their exploits are available on the IRS website, but some highlights for you to get the feel of their beat: Working with the DEA on drug busts (because the money exchanged in drug deals isn't taxed), working with the FBI on public corruption cases (because money has probably changed hands under the table), and working alone from exotic tax havens to bust tax evaders.

Job satisfaction, according to the IRS, is high. Most cases take anywhere from six months to two years, so the job never gets old. Special agents' daily routines vary between fieldwork and desk work. Just like regular cops, they spend hours poring over documents—in their case, financial—to try and assemble a case that can get them a search warrant. (That's why they need the accounting coursework.) The hope is to assemble enough evidence to force a confession—or to secure a search warrant by demonstrating a willful intent to break the law. Then you go get the sons of bitches who are robbing Uncle Sam of his rightful money.

The obvious question is why anybody would want to be a regular IRS agent if he could be an IRS special agent. Plenty don't. The waiting list runs as long as eight years to get into the program. Turnover is so low—only a handful of the 2,600 agents leave every year—that some accountants sign up for the program, pass all of the tests, and then sit on the waiting list for nearly a decade while they go about their normal lives. Then, eight years after first enrolling, they get a call that the IRS is ready for them. This, of course, assumes that the recruit in question has not, you know, started a life in the intervening time period.

And getting on the waitlist isn't easy, either. Most of the agents are not existing IRS employees but, rather, apply straight out of college. To qualify, you need a bachelor's degree, five semesters of accounting, three semesters of finance/business/tax courses, and you must be under the age of 37. From there, you'll have to pass a drug test, a medical examination, a background investigation, a tax check, and an audit of your past three tax returns.

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Then, once you get off the waiting list, you're sent to six months of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia to learn alongside all the other federal agents, including the big boys at the FBI. You're taught how to handcuff, how to execute a search warrant, and, perhaps toughest of all, how to interpret criminal tax law. Once you graduate training, you're whisked off to an IRS outpost somewhere in the country (you don't have much choice where), and you'll work under the watchful eye of a mentor for two years. After that, you're no longer a rookie. You're a respected member of the force.

Even though interest is high, the criminal investigations division doesn't just wait for recruits to find it; it goes and finds the recruits. An IRS employee, who chose to remain anonymous because of IRS rules about talking to the media, told The Big Money that at a recent IRS conference the criminal investigations team had a table set up to try and convince employees from other divisions to become special agents. "Here, hold a gun!" the recruiters said to the passers-by. They had body armor, handcuffs, and fake pistols to play with, and handed out promotional pamphlets advertising the program.

The pamphlets are a work of corporate art. The images inside emphasize teamwork and camaraderie between the recruits. There's an image of a line of special agents at target practice. There are other snapshots of everyone exercising together, competing on an obstacle course, and learning in a classroom. Then there are those that show special agents on the job: staking out a suspect's residence with binoculars, rummaging through financial files, and making a breakthrough with your colleagues as you stare at a laptop. It manages to illustrate all three acts of a really cheesy buddy-cop movie.

Above all, though, the brochure suggests that working for the IRS doesn't have to be boring. It can also be really edgy and exciting—especially when you get to carry around a gun.