Italy's tax police on the warpath against evasion

Tax officers in an anonymous office on the outskirts of Rome are on the frontlines of what Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti calls a war on endemic tax evasion as he struggles to fill public coffers.

Police man the phones 24/7, receiving a flood of reports from citizens against tax dodgers -- from landlords failing to declare their rental income to shopkeepers and waiters failing to provide receipts.

The increase in reports on the tax evasion hotline -- 117 -- is a sign that things are slowly changing in a country where a slice of the population has long considered taxes optional.

"In Rome we went from 6,500 calls in 2010 to 7,400 in 2011 to 8,200 for the first 10 months of 2012," Colonel Davide Cardia, head of the police's tax centre in the Italian capital, told AFP.

The surge in anti-evasion informants has been even more remarkable on a national level, with the hotline receiving 91.5 percent more calls in the first nine months of this year than in the same period in 2011.

"We have noticed exponential growth, particularly since autumn 2011," Cardia said.

The colonel was referring to November 2011, when Monti, a former top European commissioner and economics professor, came to power and vowed to bring down evasion to reduce Italy's debt mountain.

"Italy is a country where the rates of tax evasion are very high and have been for a very long time," said Maurizio Franzini, a professor of political economy at La Sapienza University in Rome.

"The numbers are not 100-percent certain but according to some estimates evasion is equivalent to 20 percent of gross domestic product -- a significant figure," he said.

Last year, Italian tax authorities managed to claw back 12.7 billion euros ($16.6 billion) from would-be evaders -- a 15-percent increase from 2010.

But there is still a long way to go.

"The big evaders are those who send their money to tax havens," Franzini said.

"We need to work on an international level to reduce the privileges of tax havens," he said.

As they await a more concerted attack on this international aspect of tax evasion, the police have increased operations across the country to unmask all sorts of tax dodgers.

The crackdown began last winter with a raid on the chic ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Alps, where police nabbed several artful dodgers driving luxury cars who declared no revenues at all.

This summer, they targeted posh beachside resorts like Forte dei Marmi and Portofino.

The sweep has included more humble targets too.

In an operation against the bed and breakfast sector, the police found that around 30 percent of the businesses were not paying their taxes -- a percentage that showed the scale of the challenge.

The high media impact of these operations has also been aimed at changing mentalities.

One new weapon in the war is the Internet.

On the website www.evasori.info, which is also available on smartphones, you can report a suspected tax evader with a couple of clicks.

The site packs a punch with the slogan on its home page: "Tax dodgers are stealing from you too!"

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