Minnesota Joins Widening Crackdown On “Zappers” With Announcement Of State’s First Criminal Convictions For Using Sales Suppression Devices

by Fox Rothschild LLP
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The State of Minnesota has joined the growing list of states that are criminally prosecuting business owners for using “zapper” programs to commit tax evasion.  Yesterday the Minnesota Department of Revenue and the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office announced the convictions of a Duluth restaurant and its owners for tax crimes based upon their use of sales suppression software.  This represents the first time that Minnesota has criminally prosecuted anyone for using a zapper.

Commonly called “zappers,” sales suppression software programs run on a point-of-sale computer or cash register and are used to secretly delete some or all of a restaurant’s cash transactions and then reconcile the books of the business. The result is that the company’s books appear to be complete and accurate, but are in fact false because they reflect fewer sales than were actually made. Business owners using zapper programs often maintain two sets of books, in order track the business’ real revenue. A recent article published by BNA estimates that tax-zapping software costs states $21 billion in taxes annually and that 30 percent of the electronic cash registers, or point-of-sale systems, in the United States have a zapper installed.

The restaurant in question, Osaka Sushi Hibachi & Steak House, is owned by Dan Xu and Zhong Wei Lin.  Dan Xu pleaded guilty to one felony count of aiding in the filing of false tax returns.  Zhong Wei Lin pleaded guilty to one felony count of failing to pay sales tax.  The court stayed prison sentences for both individuals in lieu of the immediate payment of restitution in full and a year of probation.  The restaurant itself pleaded guilty to two felony counts of aiding in the filing of false tax returns and fifteen felony counts of failing to pay sales tax.  The court ordered the corporation to pay restitution as well.  All three defendants paid restitution in the total amount of $292,760.

During their plea hearing, Xu and Lin admitted to intentionally using “zapper” computer software in the point of sale system at their restaurant.  The software, which was called “Happy World,” was contained on a thumb drive that was discovered by investigators during a search of the restaurant.  The Happy World software automatically created a second set of books that removed line items from cash transactions after the fact, allowing the business to underreport its monthly sales and avoid paying sales tax collected from customers.

“These are first-of-their-kind convictions in Minnesota and highlight our investigators’ efforts to combat the growing use of sales suppression software,” said Revenue Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly.  “These convictions demonstrate our determination to level the playing field so that businesses who report and pay their fair share of tax don’t have to compete with those who break the law.”

“Deliberately failing to turn over sales taxes collected increases the tax burden on all residents.   We hope this case sends a message to others engaging in this kind of behavior that it will not be tolerated, and you will be prosecuted when caught,” said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin.

As we have previously reported, state revenue departments and attorneys general (and not the Internal Revenue Service) are leading the effort to combat the use of zappers.  More than half of the states have now enacted laws criminalizing the use of sales suppression devices, and in the last two years, authorities in Washington, Michigan, Illinois, and Connecticut have successfully prosecuted criminal cases against businesses and their owners – primarily in the restaurant industry.  The Minnesota case is yet another example of aggressive action undertaken recently by state authorities against zappers, and should serve as a stern warning to business owners using (or considering using) such technology.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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