Italians turn to the Internet against tax evasion

ROME, January 15, 2012 (AFP) - As Italy's cash-strapped government launches its latest bid to crack down on tax evasion of up to 150 billion euros a year ($192 billion), it is getting a little help from mobilisation on social networks.

Blogs, Facebook groups and mobile apps are all being used to encourage Italians who have long turned a blind eye to rampant corruption to report shops, restaurants, doctors and dentists who are dodging taxes.

"We decided to help raise the level of integrity," said Edoardo Sera, a 27-year-old IT consultant, who along with some friends recently launched the website tassa.li, which translates as "tax.them", to report the fraudsters.

The website pulls together the individual reports into a "tax evasion map" and calls for people to boycott businesses that are not pulling their weight.

"Fight evasion by buying only from honest companies and professionals. Find them on our site and help us find others," said another website, nonevado.it.

The Facebook group "Friends of Receipts" and the website evasori.info have taken an even more aggressive approach, publishing names and addresses.

Public anger against tax evaders is rising as the debt crisis demands ever deeper sacrifices by ordinary Italians, who have been forced to accept three austerity packages worth 80 billion euros in the past year alone.

The challenge is a worthy but daunting one after years of laxity under the long-serving former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who famously said in 2004: "If I'm asked for 50 percent, I feel morally obliged to evade taxes."

Tax authorities last year managed to claw back 11 billion euros but experts say this is only the tip of the iceberg in a country where doctors and dentists often offer their clients a discount if they do not ask for an official receipt.

Berlusconi's replacement, Mario Monti, came to power in November calling for a radical change to defend "honest taxpayers".

"It's unacceptable that workers have to make sacrifices while a major chunk of wealth is not taxed," Monti has said.

Tax authorities have heeded his call, launching a high-profile raid on December 30 on the exclusive ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo.

Eighty tax inspectors swooped on the town, checking restaurants, bars, luxury stores and the owners of luxury cars.

The checks led to a massive 400-percent increase in declared turnover from the resort's businesses compared to the previous season.

Out of 133 luxury cars checked, 42 owners had declared incomes of less than 30,000 euros a year.

The government is not relying on hi-profile raids alone and has pushed for a greater role for Equitalia -- a tax collection agency that is widely hated for its strongarm methods and has been the target of a string of attacks.

Last month the deputy head of the agency was sent a letter bomb by an anarchist group which blew up in his face. The populist Northern League party has also gone on the offensive warning against "a tax police state".

Journalist Elena Polidori, author of a book called "Resist Equitalia" said she saw her house seized by the agency over 1,000 euros in unpaid fines.

"It would be possible to fight tax evasion in a humane way," she said.

"It's easier to bother an average Italian who has not paid some fines and is already known to tax authorities than to attack the big tax evaders," she said.

Beppe Severgnini, a well-known columnist for the Corriere della Sera daily who had his car seized in a dispute over fines, said: "Equitalia carries out checks that sometimes provoke really Kafkaesque situations."

He said: "I finished by winning my appeal but it was a very bad experience."