Random tax audits are back. This month, the Internal Revenue Service began singling out thousands of taxpayers for audits, even though the IRS has no reason to think that they've underpaid their taxes. It's all part of the agency's national research program.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Some have likened it to a reverse lottery. Thirteen thousand randomly selected taxpayers will be targeted for audits of last year's returns. That's a tiny fraction of the roughly 160 million individual tax returns filed. But that may be of little consolation if you're one of those chosen, especially since the IRS says many of the random audits will be more thorough and cover more ground than a regular audit.

Ian Comisky, a tax expert at Philadelphia's Blank Rome Law Firm, explains the IRS wants to use the data from random audits to create better formulas for catching taxpayers who underpay.

Mr. IAN COMISKY (Blank Rome LLP): They've always had a secret audit program which analyzes certain types of returns and data on the returns and decides who to audit. And they decided that that data is vastly out of date, and it needs updating. And how they're going to update it, they're going to do at least some very intensive audits of taxpayers to see if they get new data to figure out who to audit in the future.

KAUFMAN: The IRS has stepped up enforcement in recent years, but the so-called tax gap persists. The government believes that if everyone paid what they owed, the IRS would collect $345 billion more than it does now. The tax agency hopes that what it learns from the three-year random audit program will help it collect more of that money.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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