A business that buys and sells goods charges VAT to those to whom it sells and is charged VAT by those from whom it purchases. It can reclaim (subject to various rules) the VAT it pays, and so passes to the Government the net VAT it collects. In this way, a business acts as a tax collector on behalf of the Government.
Within the EU VAT, member states charge VAT at differing rates on goods as a form of indirect taxation. All exports of goods however are tax free. This leads to the situation where an exporter will be able to reclaim VAT from the Government, as it will have been charged VAT by the business from which it purchased the goods, however will owe the Government nothing because it has sold the goods tax free. The fraud exploits this reclamation of tax. It lends itself to small, high value items, such as microchips and mobile telephones.
The simplest missing trader fraud is where a fraudster imports some goods, and then sells them. When he sells them, he charges the price of the goods, plus VAT. He then absconds with the VAT instead of paying it to the Government. This situation, where the goods are made available for consumers in the importer’s home market is often known as ‘ acquisition fraud’.
Within the EU VAT system, the fraudster imports the goods from an exporter in another member state. This allows the exporter to zero-rate, which means that the exporter does not have to pay VAT. Meanwhile the fraudster reverse charges the VAT and when the fraudster sells the goods to the vendor the vendor pays the price of the goods and the VAT that the fraudster reverse charged. Typically the fraudster/importer must pay over the reverse charged VAT to his or her government, but not immediately depending on the day of the month the transaction occurred. Therefore, the fraudster must sell the goods before the fraudster must turn in the reverse charged VAT.
A more complex example is for several businesses to act in concert. In this situation, the goods are sold to a series of companies, before being exported again. The goods therefore go round in a carousel. This is best explained by way of an example:
Consider a trader based in the UK. He buys from France a consignment of mobile telephones for £1,000,000. He pays the French telephone manufacturer for the goods. The goods are then shipped to a dock in the UK. No VAT is charged on that shipment. The trader now sells those telephones to a conspirator, for £1,100,000. He charges 20% VAT and the conspirator sends £1,320,00 (being the price of the goods plus the tax) to the trader.
This conspirator then sells the goods to a third conspirator for £1,200,000, charging VAT on that sale. The third conspirator pays £1,410,000 to the second. This may continue for many conspirators; however, three will suffice for an example. The third trader now sells the telephones to a German company, which may well be innocent. No VAT is charged, and the sales price of £1,500,000 paid by the German company without VAT.
So far the conspirators have made a profit of £500,000 perfectly legitimately on buying and selling mobile telephones. In an honest operation, the first trader would pay £192,500 to HM Revenue and Customs (the UK’s VAT collection agency).
The second trade has collected £210,000 in VAT but paid £192,500 in VAT and therefore has to pay only the difference (£17,500) to HM Revenue and Customs. The third trader has charged no tax on its sale but has paid £210,000 in VAT and can therefore reclaim £210,000 from HM Revenue and Customs. In the fraud, the first business vanishes without paying the VAT to HM Revenue and Customs. When the last business in the chain collects £210,000 on the export, all of the businesses can vanish, £192,500 better off at the expense of HM Revenue and Customs. As this business is removed from the vanishing party, it is hard for HM Revenue and Customs to
show the links in the chain and thereby refuse to refund the VAT on the export. In terminology, each business described above is called a “buffer”. In a real case there can be many buffers, all helping to blur the link between the final reclaim and the original importer, which will vanish.
This entire series of transactions can occur without the goods ever leaving the dock in the UK before being re-exported. Furthermore the same telephones can be used again and again going through the various buffers, each pass around the ‘carousel’ bringing reclaimed VAT to the fraudsters.
Contra-trading fraud is the further evolution of carousel fraud, and evades government detection by using two carousels of tradd goods where one carousel is legitimate and the other is not thereby allowing an accounting scheme where the input and output VATs neutralize each other thereby concealing the fraud. Jaswant Ray Kanda, of
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands and his Gang were key players in this type of Carousel Fraud.
Customs Officials who were investigating these criminals called their Operation Maypole as they had clear evidence that Kanda and his gang sent the same lot of goods round and round again. Although the example above referred to all the links being co-conspirators in the fraud, according to a decision in the European Court of Justice it is possible that innocent parties also become involved by simply buying and selling on goods. If it is the first party in the chain who is the absconding fraudster, the goods can continue to be sold-on by innocent parties(though the practicalities of this assessment can lead to difficulties in explaining why an organiser would want to risk the fraud being stopped in its tracks by an innocent trader selling to another person not involved in the fraud; and so unable to complete the circle which enables a huge VAT repayment claim by the exporting broker). In the UK, the position until 2006 was that HM Customs and Excise withheld VAT repayments to others later on in the chain, on the basis that the transactions were lacking in economic substance and so should be outside the scope of the VAT regime. Bond House Systems Limited was one such “innocent trader”, who was owed £13,200,000 in VAT repayments by HM Customs and Excise. It challenged the UK Government’s stance, taking the case eventually to the European Court of Justice. In January 2006 the ECJ found in favor of Bond House and ordered that the VAT owed to Bond House be repaid by HM Revenue & Customs. It is estimated the decision will cost the UK government hundreds of millions of pounds as other companies make their claims.
According to the case Federation of Technological Industries v Customs and Excise Commissioners ( EWCA Civ 1020) in 2002-3 the estimated cumulative cost of such frauds to the UK alone was between £1.65 and £2.64 billion (US$2.9 to $4.62). According to the BBC, “So-called ‘missing trader’ or ‘carousel’ fraud is estimated to cost European taxpayers up to £170bn a year – twice the European Union’s annual budget.”
The fraud has mutated and now can incorporate all high value goods such as designer goods, health products, jewellery etc.