Annual tax-snooping season opens

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The numbers are nearly 10 months old and they can be artificial as well, but state tax officials released the 2008 tax lists for public inspection on Wednesday. Norwegians can thus check out what their fellow taxpayers reported as their income, net worth and taxes paid for last year, and media outlets were having a ball.

It’s an annual rite of autumn in Norway and has been for years. Government authorities think it’s only fitting and proper that Norwegians can see what their fellow Norwegians have contributed to the social welfare state. Actual tax returns aren’t released, but their bottom lines are.

In earlier years, people would actually gather at public inspection sites in every Norwegian township. There, they could thumb through huge scrolls of tax information on paper. Many freely admit that they’re simply curious to see how much money others have earned and paid out in taxes, as well as the value of their taxable net worth.

Institutionalized snooping
It’s a form of institutionalized snooping, called “snoking” in Norwegian. No one seems to care that the numbers involved are already outdated, in terms of an individual’s current financial situation, nor do they represent reality. Tax values assigned to homes, for example, are never more than 30 percent of market value, and taxable income has been watered down from what actual income really is. Real income and net worth are almost always much higher than what shows on the tax lists.

Still, the lists seem to fascinate many Norwegians. Tax authorities also know that by releasing the tax lists, there’s a bigger chance they might collect tips on tax fraud. Friends, or more likely enemies, may be more apt to tip authorities if they spot income or net worth that looks suspiciously low.

Tax list season shifted into high-gear several years ago with the arrival of the Internet. Suddenly it was no longer necessary to physically make a trip to the inspection sites and check the tax rolls on paper. You could click on a link with no one watching, punch in a name and spend the rest of the day surfing and snooping.

Web site bonanza
News media web sites snapped up the links, and thus generated huge amounts of traffic. Editors contend it’s simply a new and more convenient way of releasing information that already is publicly available. Most realize it also can be a commercial bonanza, as eager snoopers bombard the web sites, boost traffic and, possibly, advertising revenues.

The mass distribution of tax information over the Internet has raised concerns, however. That has led to new security measures, to prevent identity theft, and new debate of the ethics of the distribution. In some cases, children have been bullied at school when their friends find out that their parents earn “too little or too much,” by Norwegian standards.

The latest tax lists were nonetheless released at 3am Wednesday. It didn’t take long before news media could report that industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke no longer was Norway’s wealthiest man, since his reported fortune plummeted along with the stock market last year. Newspapers are expected to be full on Thursday of tailored lists ranking income and net worth levels for politicians, sports stars, musicians and other celebrities.

The link, for anyone interested, can be found via the tax authorities’ web site:www.skatteetaten.no. It helps, however, if you can understand Norwegian.