Cost of Living

Check your paperwork or you may wind up with an $8M tax bill like this barista

The pandemic brings a more complicated tax season than most — but it may not compare to a 17-year-old in B.C. who had assets seized over an erroneous tax assessment of more than $8 million despite only working part-time at a coffee shop.

A more complicated tax season means it's critical to double-check your forms

Accountant Phil Hogan holds up a copy of a CRA statement of account after an error amounting to millions of dollars was corrected. (Submitted by Phil Hogan)

This spring is bringing a tax season more complicated than usual, with pandemic benefits and payments adding to the usual paperwork.

But for Alina Bukatova, it might never be as complicated as 2018, when all the money in her bank accounts was seized after the Canada Revenue Agency thought she owed more than $8 million in taxes. 

That's despite an income Bukatova described as about $17,000 from working at a coffee shop.

It was a situation the 17-year-old student in Victoria ignored at first, thinking it was an attempt to defraud her.

Bukatova had used a branch of a well-known national tax preparation chain to do her 2018 taxes. She trusted what went through and didn't see anything that appeared incorrect. So when her notice of assessment showed an income of more than $17 million dollars — and the associated $8 million in unpaid taxes — she assumed it was a fake, along with automated phone calls claiming she owed money to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Alina Bukatova's notice of assessment had numbers so outlandish — such as an income of over $8 million — she was sure it was a scam. It wasn't. (Submitted by Phil Hogan)

"The numbers were just so ridiculous that everyone looked at that piece of paper and saw that $8 million there and was like, wow, these guys aren't even trying to pull off an elaborate scam," said Bukatova. A friend who is also a lawyer checked over the document and agreed with that assessment.

While Bukatova's seemingly outlandish tax bill was an error — and later corrected — it's a reminder to check details carefully on your tax return, especially for tax year 2020 which is more complicated for many.

Phone calls weren't a scam

Among the notifications Bukatova initially ignored were phone calls from an automated system saying it was calling from the Canada Revenue Agency about her taxes. 

Many Canadians are familiar with what has colloquially been called a "CRA phone scam," where phone calls claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency insist the recipient owes taxes and must pay immediately.

At the time, Bukatova was a teenager and brushed off the calls as fake or fraudulent, until she tried to use her debit card a few months later in mid-2018.

"I wanted to get myself some lunch and then it just wouldn't go through," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's The Cost of Living.

"At that point, I actually checked my bank account and it was at negative $16," said Bukatova.

There had been less than $6000 in her account, so that still meant the Canada Revenue Agency was looking for, say, $8,329,413.06, according to documents provided to CBC Radio.

Time to find an accountant

Bukatova turned to accountant Phil Hogan for help, who documented her experience on his website.

"This was such an obvious error," he told The Cost of Living.

Neither Bukatova, her family members or Hogan knew where the error occurred in the original tax return. Even several years later, Bukatova remains unclear on what went wrong as she couldn't locate the error in the records she retained.

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The Canada Revenue Agency told The Cost of Living it could not comment on the specifics of this situation due to taxpayer confidentiality

Regardless, it was clear based on her notice of assessment that the CRA believed her income exceeded $17 million, rather than $17,000.

After accountant Phil Hogan intervened, the CRA re-assessed Bukatova's income to a more reasonable amount for a 17-year-old coffee shop barista. (Submitted by Phil Hogan)

After obtaining permission and authorization to view Bukatova's account, Hogan was able to speak to a CRA agent, explain the situation, and put forward an adjustment.

"I think they kind of ran it up the chain because the numbers were so significant," said Hogan, who had not filed the initial tax return for Bukatova.

"I think it would have been quite challenging if the taxpayer got on the phone [with the CRA] and tried to work through it. Because once something hits collection, they tend not to like to bounce it back."

Not all CRA calls are scam calls

The Revenue Agency encourages Canadians to be cautious if they receive suspicious phone calls claiming to be from the CRA.

However, it does make legitimate phone calls.

"The CRA may genuinely need to call you, for example, if you owe tax or other amounts to a government program," said CRA spokesperson TJ Madigan in an emailed statement.

The CRA encourages Canadians to confirm any communication from the agency using their online CRA My Account portal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The CRA's website provides tips on how to determine if a phone call from them is legitimate. For example, you can log into the Revenue Agency's online portal to confirm if the numbers you are seeing in a letter or hearing on the phone match your actual tax assessments — even if they are into the millions of dollars.

2020 is a more complicated tax year

The pandemic has meant a flood of new or different financial situations for many Canadians, along with a flood of unfamiliar acronyms such as CERB, CRB, or T2200A.

This will mean that there are more numbers to enter for millions of Canadians on top of their standard-issue T4 form, because the CRA expects COVID-19 emergency and recovery benefits to be reported on tax returns.

    That includes the:

    • Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
    • Canada Emergency Student Benefit.
    • Canada Recovery Benefit.
    • Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.
    • Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit.

    "If you received [those benefits] you will have to enter the total of the amounts you received as income on your return," said CRA representative Madigan.  Tax slips with the required information have been issued by mail, and can also be viewed online by people who have signed up for a CRA My Account.

    Double-check your work and don't miss deadlines

    While tax-return software has made it easier than ever for Canadians to file their taxes from home, don't leave everything up to automated systems without double checking, say accountants.

    The responsibility for any error, whether via pen and paper or digital, remains on the taxpayer.

    "The tax system is complicated and it's not getting simpler," said accountant Phil Hogan.

    "2020 is a good example of that. We have a whole new slew of rules that the agents and professionals [at the CRA] have to learn. So they're honestly probably doing their best," said Hogan.

    If your communications from the CRA seem off in any way, whether it's by $8 or $8 million, make sure you communicate with the Agency by the deadline they provide in letters or on their online portal.

    If you don't, the agency could take action based on whatever information they've got, even if it turns out to be an error.

    In the end, Bukatova did get her money back and her taxes were retroactively corrected a few months after her money was seized.

    Written and produced by Anis Heydari.
    Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear this segment, or 
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    The Cost of Living airs every week on CBC Radio One, Sundays at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 NT).