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New tax breaks cause confusion, enforcement issues

New tax breaks enacted last year are causing confusion for taxpayers and enforcement problems for the Internal Revenue Service, according to a government report issued Thursday, the deadline for filing individual returns.

As of March 5, the IRS erroneously gave out $24.2 million in Making Work Pay tax credits, according to the report by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. The IRS issued a total of $25 billion worth of the credits during the period, for an error rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

The IRS also erroneously issued about $4.7 million in tax credits meant for people who bought plug-in electric cars. The new tax breaks were enacted as part of the massive economic recovery package passed last year.

“Our report concludes that the IRS is having a mixed filing season this year,” George said. “On the one hand, they are having difficulty implementing many of the changes created by the passage of the laws designed to stimulate the economy. On the other hand, the news is not all bad as the IRS is detecting and stopping more erroneous refunds this year.”

The report covers returns processed as of March 5. At the time, the IRS had received about 61 million returns. The agency expects to receive about 140 million individual returns this year.

“Any time you have major tax changes you will see some confusion over it,” said IRS spokesman Terry Lemons. The IRS is doing “everything we can” to work through problems and process returns quickly.

The stimulus package enacted last year presented many challenges for taxpayers and the IRS, making an already complicated tax system even more complex. There were tax credits for qualified families who buy new homes or make energy improvements to existing ones, as well as tax breaks to help pay college tuition or buy new cars.

The Making Work Pay tax credit was President Barack Obama’s signature tax break in the package. It provides individuals with up to $400 and couples up to $800.

The homebuyer tax credit was so popular that Congress extended and expanded it in November. Buyers who have owned their current homes at least five years are eligible, subject to income limits, for tax credits of up to $6,500. First-time homebuyers — or people who haven’t owned homes in the previous three years — can get up to $8,000. To qualify, buyers have to sign purchase agreements before May 1 and close before July 1.

The IRS expects half the people claiming the homebuyer credit not to include proper documentation, such as a settlement statement, and that will delay refunds, according to the report.

As of April 2, the average refund was $2,950, up about $255 over last year, Lemons said. The fastest way to get a refund: file electronically and have the refund deposited directly into a bank account, which takes about 10 days.

Refunds can take six to eight weeks for last-minute filers who use paper returns and receive checks, Lemons said.

Japan developing cyber weapon: report

TOKYO: Japan has been developing a virus that could track down the source of a cyber attack and neutralise its programme, the daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported Sunday.

The weapon is the culmination of a 179 million yen ($2.3 million) three-year project entrusted by the government to technology maker Fujitsu Ltd to develop a virus and equipment to monitor and analyse attacks, the daily said.

The United States and China are reported to have put so-called cyber weapons into practical use, Yomiuri said.
Japan will have to make legal amendments to use a cyber weapon as it could violate the country’s law against the manufacture of a computer virus, the daily said.
In November a computer system run by about 200 Japanese local governments was struck.
In October, Japan’s parliament came under cyber attack, apparently from the same emails linked to a China-based server that have already hit several lawmakers’ computers.

It was also reported that Japanese computers at embassies and consulates in nine countries were infected with viruses in the summer.

Currently, the virus is being tested in a “closed environment” to examine its applicable patterns. (AFP)

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Electric cars win hype, staying power questioned

Electric cars win hype, staying power questioned

LONDON (Reuters) – Electric cars are riding high, as incentives and new models make them a realistic option, but the fresh attention may highlight flaws compared with gasoline and alternatives such as biofuels.

The attention rankles with some in the biofuel industry, whose own hype was abruptly halted by a glut of production in 2007, subsequent bankruptcies and a fall from grace after a link was drawn — which they dispute — between biofuels and spiralling food prices and rising hunger.

Gasoline may beat off both alternatives for decades as the least-worst option, with wider adoption of more efficient conventional cars helping to curb carbon emissions and oil dependence.

The uncertainty is striking for a $5-6 trillion global auto and fuel supply market, where there is agreement only that the number of cars will keep rising, perhaps doubling to 2 billion by 2050.

The momentum is with electricity, following an oil price spike in 2008, lavish government incentives and a crippling downturn across the wider car industry. Last week the United States finalised fuel efficiency standards, following similar rules in Europe.

Green cars grabbed centre stage at auto shows this year in New York, Geneva and Detroit, including all-battery cars, hybrid varieties that switch between electric and gasoline, and small, more fuel-efficient conventional cars.

EXPENSIVE

But battery electric vehicles (EVs) are expensive.

Mitsubishi Motors and Nissan Motor Co last week announced prices for their i-MiEV and Leaf battery-only electric cars, in production already or about to debut, at 3.98 million yen ($42,520) and 3.76 million yen respectively before state subsidies, several times the cost of equivalent cars.

Reality bites with driving ranges of about 100 miles (160.9 km), far less than for a petrol car which U.S. customers expect to exceed 300 miles.

And electric cars have to contend with the multi-billion-dollar cost of a new charging infrastructure, although they benefit from running costs at about a quarter of gasoline at today’s prices, according to electric car advocates.

“The electric vehicle sector certainly has momentum, but it’s questionable whether it has the legs for the longer term, at least at the moment, and whether it has enough scale,” said Peter Wells at Cardiff University’s Centre for Automotive Industry Research, who expected big cost reductions.

Success depends on drivers accepting limitations on range and on re-charging time, which takes several hours, said Pierre Gaudillat, research and development manager at the UK-funded Carbon Trust.

“I don’t see any major breakthrough on the horizon,” he said. Customers may have to compromise on what they expect from a car, perhaps tailored for commuting, and from ownership, for example buying the car but renting the expensive battery.

Hybrid gasoline-electric cars overcome the range problem but are still pricey because of their complexity and battery costs.

Sales of hybrid-electric vehicles are expected to reach about 1.3 percent of an estimated 67 million light vehicle sales this year, according to the information company J.D. Power and Associates.

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