Q&A: When an online shopping money-saving scheme is tax evasion

Dear Liz: My father lives in Washington state. He often purchases higher-priced items online, has them shipped to relatives living in Oregon and picks them up later. That way he doesn’t have to pay sales tax. Is this a form of tax evasion? Does he need to pay a “use tax”? Could he (and the Oregon relatives) possibly be in any kind of legal danger? He claims it’s perfectly fine to do this because Washingtonians “do it all the time” by driving down to Oregon to do their shopping.

Answer: Yes, people do this “all the time” but it’s still a form of tax evasion.

Washington and other states with sales taxes typically have laws requiring people to pay a use tax when they bring home goods purchased in another state that either doesn’t charge sales tax or charges less. People may also owe use taxes when they purchase something from an individual who doesn’t collect sales tax. An example might be furniture purchased from a Craigslist ad.

But these laws can be difficult to enforce. While businesses can be subject to sales and use tax audits, individual taxpayers are unlikely to face the same scrutiny.

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