If your business purchases goods or services from other businesses, and you think some of them may not be complying with their tax obligations, there is a serious risk that you need to address. The risk is primarily in the GST/HST area.
This comes up in everything from construction services, to agencies that supply temporary personnel, to garment work, scrap metal sales, building cleaning services, and many other areas.
Surprisingly, the risk is primarily where the supplier charges you GST/HST. If it does not charge you GST or HST that you should be paying, your risk is far lower, because the worst that can happen is that you have to pay the GST or HST down the road, and will normally be able to claim an offsetting input tax credit at that time.
Assuming your business makes “taxable supplies” for GST/HST purposes, you are normally entitled to input tax credits (ITCs) to recover all GST or HST you pay on purchases.
However, as you probably know, these ITCs are available only if the supplier provides you with an invoice or receipt that meets detailed documentation requirements. Those requirements normally include the supplier’s name and GST/HST registration number, the price paid, a “description of the supply sufficient to identify it”, the amount of GST or HST, the date, the purchaser’s name, the terms of payment and certain other details.
These documentation requirements are mandatory; if they are not met, you cannot claim the ITCs to recover the tax you have paid to your supplier. You can check online that a supplier’s GST/HST registration number is valid, using the CRA’s “GST/HST Registry” at www.rca.gc.ca.
The Canada Revenue Agency has been dealing for many years with the problem of companies that bill GST or HST for goods or services, collect the money and then disappear. Quite apart from not paying corporate income tax on their profits, these companies are literally stealing the sales taxes, which they collect on behalf of the government and are supposed to hold in trust for the government.
This problem has also shown up in Quebec, where Revenu Québec (RQ) administers the GST together with the Quebec Sales Tax.
Innocent businesses are denied ITCs
In recent years, the CRA and RQ have aggressively pursued businesses that have dealt with these unscrupulous companies. Not being able to find the thieves, the auditors instead go after the businesses that purchased these suppliers’ goods and services, and have denied the ITCs that those innocent businesses have claimed.
Both the CRA and RQ have actually had a lot of success in the Courts when the innocent businesses have appealed.
Despite the fact that a business has no legal obligation to “police” its suppliers to ensure that they remit GST/HST they have collected, the Courts have found ways to make innocent businesses responsible.
One way that the government and the Courts have nailed the innocent businesses is by ruling that the invoice was not from the “real” supplier. Even though the invoice was from a numbered company that was properly GST-registered (and you checked the online GST/HST Registry), and otherwise met the documentation requirements, the Courts have ruled in some of these cases that the supplier named on the invoice was not the “real” supplier, and thus the documentation requirements were not met.
How can a business protect itself from this risk?
A way to address this problem is to take steps to document that the business named on the invoice you pay is the same legal entity that you are dealing with, and is properly registered with the CRA (or RQ) for GST/HST (and, in Quebec, for QST).
(1) To check that a supplier is GST/HST-registered: For any new supplier, go to the CRA’s GST/HST Registry at www.rca.gc.ca, before you pay them any GST/HST, and enter their name and the GST/HST registration number they give you. The online registry will tell you if the person is indeed registered under that name as of the current date.
(2) For identity:
- If the invoice is in a personal name, get a copy of the person’s driver’s licence or other government-issued photo ID, and check that it’s the same name as the GST/HST registration on the registry you checked in (1) above, and that is the name that appears on the invoice you are paying.
- If it’s a company name, especially if it’s a numbered company, the only way you can ensure that the entity identified on the invoice is the one you’re actually contracting with is to ask the supplier for documentation that shows who the directors of the company are (this information is also available online from the provincial government, at a cost); and check the identity of the person you’re dealing with as being a director of the company, by getting a copy of their driver’s licence or other photo ID.
Of course, every business will have to determine whether it’s worth going through these procedures, or whether the risk of suppliers being tax-thieves is low enough that these steps are not worth the cost and effort. But for those seriously at risk of being reassessed to have substantial ITCs denied, these steps can prove to be a lifesaver.