We have been campaigning against VAT Fraud by Overseas Online Retailers for 3 years now. HMRC’s own estimate of the fraud is £1.5 billion in lost VAT a year. This equates to £27 billion in lost sales revenue & additional taxes to UK businesses and the public purse in the last 3 years.
The majority of VAT evading Overseas Online Retailers we reported to HMRC 3 years ago are still trading and continue to evade VAT.
The National Audit Office in now carrying out an investigation “VAT evasion by overseas online retailers” looking at the risk of VAT (Value Added Tax) evasion by overseas online retailers. The investigation focuses on HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC’s) role in administering the UK VAT system, including managing and reducing risks to the collection of tax revenue. The report should be out end of April 2016.
We have now raised our concerns about HMRC with the Public Accounts Committee.
The government is now aware of the scale of the fraud.
David Gauke MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury – 16th March 2016:
“This abuse has grown significantly and now accounts for £1-1.5bn of the total VAT gap. These overseas traders are unfairly undercutting all businesses trading in the UK, abusing the trust of UK consumers and depriving the government of significant revenue.” (Quote from HMRC Fulfilment House Due Diligence Scheme.PDF).
We would like to take the opportunity to thank all the Lords, MPs, Professors of Tax Law, Economists, The Heads of VAT in the EU, The Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Mirror, The Register, Tamebay and The BBC who have been instrumental in raising the awareness of our campaign and getting it firmly on the political agenda. Thank you!!
Our campaign successfully pressured HMRC and the Treasury into introducing new laws in the Finance Bill 2016 to tackle online VAT Fraud, which included joint and several liability for online marketplaces; VAT: overseas businesses using an online marketplace to sell goods in the UK and a proposed Fulfilment house due diligence scheme.
However the new laws fall well short of what needs to be done and simply amounts to a chocolate teapot.
There are still 1000’s of Overseas Online Retailers committing VAT Fraud on eBay & Amazon. Amazon are still offering fulfilment services to VAT Evading Non Compliant Overseas Online Retailers. HMRC is failing to stop this from happening. HMRC is now issuing VAT numbers to Overseas Online Retailers who have been evading VAT for many years rather than taking action against them.
Level the Playing Field
The situation has now got so out of hand that even the VAT evaders are finding it impossible to compete because there are so many of them on Amazon & eBay.
On 27th September 2016 we submitted a new list to HMRC of 600+ VAT Evading non UK sellers using Amazon to warehouse and fulfil their illegal stock. We are now waiting to see how quickly HMRC will take action with their new powers and the £22.5 million they have allocated over the next 5 years to tackle the fraud.
HMRC have failed to make a single prosecution for Online VAT Fraud in the past 5 years.
Until the playing field is well and truly levelled, we will carry on campaigning.
Below we have outlined what needs to be done:
Seize all VAT Evaders Stock held in Amazon UK Warehouses
Amazon are by far the biggest company providing fulfilment services for VAT evading Overseas Online Retailers & UK Retailers. HMRC must seize the £100’s of millions, if not £billions of VAT evaders stock that is stored and dispatched by Amazon in the UK.
One of Amazon’s main UK warehouses is:
LTN1 Amazon Milton Keynes
Marston Gate Distribution Centre
It’s just off Junction 13 on the M1. About 1.5 hours drive from HMRC HQ in London.
We also recommend hiring a very large van too.
Removing VAT Evading Sellers from eBay & Amazon
HMRC must ensure that all sellers who have been found to be evading VAT have their eBay & Amazon accounts completely closed.
All VAT evading Amazon sellers must have all their product listings permanently removed from the Amazon website catalogue. This will stop companies from being able to simply shut up shop and start trading the next day on the same highly ranked product listings under a new company name.
Joint and Several Liability for Online Marketplaces
Under the new Finance Bill, online marketplaces will only become joint and several liable ONCE HMRC have spotted the fraud and reported the seller to the online marketplace. The online marketplace will then only become joint and several liable IF the online marketplace fails to remove the seller within 30 days. The online marketplace will ONLY become joint and several liable for any future fraud.
This is hardly the self policing system that is required and amounts to nothing more than an amnesty for the online marketplace.
HMRC does not have the resources to police it, having clearly shown a complete inability in police it in the first place.
This has now turned into a very expensive £billion game of wack a mole at the taxpayers expense whilst online marketplaces continue to profit from the fraud.
The government needs to make online marketplaces liable for any VAT fraud that it “knew or should have known” was taking place.
Online Marketplaces Profiting from VAT Fraud
The law states that nobody is allowed to profit from any fraudulent transaction. Online marketplaces are taking commissions and making profit from every fraudulent transaction where VAT is being evaded.
Online marketplaces are making £billions from VAT Fraud.
HMRC must recover the evaded VAT from the profits the online marketplaces are making from fraudulent transactions.
Fulfilment House & Supply Chain Liability
Fulfilment houses such as Amazon are being allowed to fulfil orders for Overseas Online Retailers who are not VAT registered, who have not provided a VAT number and/or have provided a bogus VAT Number. Amazon Fulfilment do not verify or validate VAT numbers.
Amazon are not just an Online Marketplace, they are also a payment provider and fulfilment centre for VAT Evaders. They are an integral part of this fraudulent supply chain. Amazon says they have no legal obligation or responsibility to ensure VAT compliance even though they are the key part of the supply chain. Amazon Fulfilment are making £billions in profit from VAT Fraud.
HMRC are planning a Fulfilment house due diligence scheme that will be introduced in 2018. However this is a long way off and many UK businesses will have gone bust before this comes into force.
The government needs to introduce emergency measures to make all Fulfilment houses liable for being part of this fraudulent supply chain.
Overseas Online Retailers Registering for VAT
The government must only allow Overseas Online Retailers to register for VAT who have appointed VAT representative in the UK who is liable of any VAT Fraud committed by the overseas retailer.
HMRC announced that 7,185 overseas retailers had registered for VAT in 2016. Our research shows that over 50% of these overseas retailers have registered for VAT via Chinese VAT Agents.
A VAT Agent is a company, normally an accountant, who handles an overseas retailers VAT returns and registration process. However a VAT Agent is not liable for any VAT fraud committed by the overseas retailer.
This system is completely open to abuse and VAT Fraud.
Recovering Undeclared VAT from NON Complaint Overseas Retailers
Since the Finance Act 2016 was announced in the March 2016 Budget we have seen a huge increase of overseas retailers who have now registered for VAT, but who have been committing VAT fraud for many years. In addition to this, many sellers are using fake, bogus or VAT numbers that do not belong to them. See case study here.
HMRC should make sale data requests from Amazon & eBay of all non UK & UK sellers who are trading with or without VAT numbers and match up their historical sales data with their VAT returns.
We have also learnt that many non UK sellers are now simply applying for VAT numbers, submitting fraudulent VAT returns and continue to commit VAT Fraud.
It is our view that the current risk of VAT Fraud by non UK Sellers is still extremely high.
HMRC need to ensure it has the systems in place to monitor sellers sale data and future VAT returns.
Online marketplaces Verifying VAT Numbers
Online marketplaces must be forced to fully verified sellers VAT numbers with supporting documentation including copies of VAT certificates, company incorporation certificate, company letterheads, a recent service bills and/or recent bank statements.
The sellers company name & VAT number should only be editable by the online marketplace at the request of the seller.
Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 – Displaying VAT Numbers & Business Information
This directive clearly states companies must display a valid VAT number registered to their company name on all online.
However we have learnt that HMRC doesn’t have the authority to enforce it. It is enforced by DCMS. We contacted DCMS with regards to why they have not enforced it with non UK Sellers using online marketplaces and we received this response:
“Where the sellers are not established in the EU/EEA, whilst liable to be VAT registered for supplies of goods made in the UK, they are not subject to the obligations of The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 and neither does the online marketplace operator have any obligation to display the VAT number of those who use their services to sell goods.
As there has been no infringement of the Regulations by the overseas non-EU sellers, there is no scope for issuing a take down notice to the hosting site
Both HMRC & DCMS took legal advice on the directive. We made a freedom of information request to DCMS to see the advise they were given, but it was refused.
It is quite unbelievable that this Law isn’t been enforced by anyone. If this LAW was enforced it would have stopped the fraud in the first place.
UK sellers & non UK sellers now have different rules, even though they are selling on the same online marketplace, warehousing stock in the same warehouse and selling to the same UK customers.
This is NOT right. All Non UK companies must display a valid VAT number registered to their company name on all online marketplaces BEFORE they sell products located in the UK.
Displaying Seller Location, Stock Location, Price & VAT
Online marketplaces must clearly display the location of the seller and their stock on all products page next to the “buy now” button and throughout the checkout process. Prices must clearly display whether it includes or excludes VAT.
If a product is located outside the UK, consumers must be told that import tax and duty will be payable on receipt of goods.
Currently Amazon make it very difficult for a consumer for know who or where the seller and product are located. Consumers are being hood wicked into purchases products from sellers outside the UK who market themselves with shop names like “UKBestDeals” when actually the seller is Chinese. This is costing UK businesses £billions in lost revenue.
Consumers must be given the ability to filter search results on online marketplaces by Seller location; UK, EU & Rest of World. Consumers have the right to know who and where they are purchasing from.
Prices of all product must clearly state if the price includes VAT. Prices of good that are located outside the UK & EU must clearly state that VAT & Duty will be due on delivery.
In addition to this returns & refund information must be clearly displayed to consumers. Consumers need to know before they purchase an item from a NON UK seller where the item will be returned to if a refund is required.
PayPal and eBay Business Seller Accounts
Currently an eBay business account can be linked to another company’s PayPal account. This allows an eBay business seller to link to someone else’s PayPal account and channel all their sales out of the UK without paying VAT or Tax.
eBay accounts must only be linked to PayPal accounts that are registered to the same business.
Abuses of LVCR – Low Value Consignment Relief
LVCR (a relief from VAT on goods imported into the EU with a value of £15 or less) is only applicable to packets that are addressed to individuals in the EU as was ruled in Har Vaessen Douane Service BV v Staatssecretaris van Financiën in 2009. Even if imported in bulk, the individual packets must be addressed to individual customers to qualify for LVCR.
HMRC are allowing the clearance of thousands of packets with bar codes on them instead of an address which is in breach of EU law. Packets are not being sent to individuals and are instead being sent in bulk consignments without VAT or Duty being paid to warehouses where, having claimed an exemption from VAT illegally, they sit as stock awaiting an order from a UK customer or forwarded onto Amazon Fulfilment warehouses. This abusive practice must be prevented by HMRC.
Due to Brexit the UK will not be able to take advantage of the proposed changes to the EU VAT system which will make VAT payable by the sender of the goods (thereby removing the need for LVCR which the EU intends to scrap in 2020). The EU propose extending the current One Stop Shop concept to all cross-border e-commerce, including distance sales. This means that any goods located outside the EU that are sold to consumers within the EU will have the VAT & Duty prepaid by the seller.
Due to Brexit LVCR should therefore be removed completely or a system the same as the EU’s should be adopted. To do anything less than this would be unacceptable.