HMRC made 18,464 requests to access communications data like phone records and web histories to aid its criminal investigations in 2019, according to city law firm RPC.
The total number of communication requests was up slightly on 2018’s 18,263 requests. The latest available data was from 2019.
The taxman can request data held by telecoms operators including the time, duration and location of a phone call as well as the number dialled. It can also request a list of websites visited by an individual from their internet provider.
An HMRC spokesperson said: “Requesting access to communications data is an essential tool to help us to tackle the dishonest minority who try to defraud the majority of honest taxpayers. Tools such as this enabled HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service to secure and protect more than £4.2 billion for our vital public services in 2019/20.
“We only make such requests when appropriate, where there is already evidence to suggest fraud is occurring, and these powers are subject to strict controls. The tool is one which other law enforcement agencies and the police also hold.”
Communications data is only able to provide the ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ of a communication. It does not give any context to the communication, such as what was actually said or written. To obtain this information, HMRC must use more intrusive forms of direct surveillance.
The majority of applications to acquire communications data are for the prevention and detection of serious crime, including tax evasion.
Adam Craggs, partner and head of tax at RPC, said: “Most taxpayers are unaware of the extensive investigative powers which HMRC has at its disposal and it will not hesitate to use these powers if it suspects fraud.
“As HMRC shifts its focus to furlough fraud, phone and web browsing data is likely to be a hugely valuable source in identifying those who may be defrauding the public purse.”