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updated: 12/15/2010 6:56 AM

Illinois wants shoppers to pay up on online taxes

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SPRINGFIELD -- While you're sitting at a computer doing your last-minute online shopping for the holidays, Illinois officials want you to keep something in mind: You owe sales tax on that.

Websites without major physical presences in Illinois, for example don't have to collect the state sales tax when shoppers pass through the electronic checkout lane.

That means the responsibility of sending the government sales taxes from a purchase falls on the buyer, said Illinois Department of Revenue spokesman Mike Klemens.

It's a responsibility most people shirk, he said, possibly because they don't know they're supposed to pay.

That's why when Illinois tax forms go out next year, they'll include a separate line to ask filers how much they owe the state based on their online, or even phone-ordered, purchases.

Illinois officials hope that simply asking filers directly how much they owe will get more people to pay.

For people who haven't kept detailed records of their online purchases, the state plans to offer a worksheet to help estimate. They'll suggest paying $3 for every $10,000 of your gross income.

Klemens, though, says that doesn't mean someone who bought a $3,000 computer online tax-free is off the hook just for following the directions to estimate.

"We're just trying to make it simple for people," Klemens said.

Illinois' step might not help suburban retailers who feel their Internet competitors have an unfair advantage when they don't charge sales sax at their online checkouts.

Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson's Book Shop in Naperville, said many people who have avoided paying sales taxes for their online purchases in the past might not be forthcoming in the future.

"I don't think most people will be honest about that," she said.

Klemens says the state now gets about $5 million to $6 million in sales taxes from people who have bought items online. A study last year suggested the state could get as much as $150 million or more if everyone paid what they owed.

The law that changed the tax forms also grants scofflaws who haven't paid sales taxes for Internet purchases a chance to do so penalty-free from Jan. 1 until Oct. 15.

Penalties, though, are rare. Klemens says the state goes after big cases when it can. But in most instances, there's no public record of what customers bought online and therefore no way to track them down and collect.

Anderson said she plans to lobby lawmakers to try to get the rules changed.

"Illinois needs the money," she said.