The Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service, and Congress have all identified "offshore tax evasion" as a primary enforcement target. The success of the enforcement effort so far has energized government efforts in these cases.

If you are an American taxpayer with an offshore account that you thought was secret, you have very little time to bring it into compliance. We are now in the second amnesty for unreported foreign income. The first amnesty was in 2009. In February 2011, the IRS announced a second amnesty for taxpayers with unreported foreign assets. It is called the 2011 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative – OVDI. The objective is to bring taxpayers who have used undisclosed foreign accounts and undisclosed foreign entities to avoid or evade tax into compliance with U. S. tax laws.

This is the last amnesty. You will not get another chance. If you have unreported foreign accounts and/or unreported foreign income, after August 31, 2011 you will no longer be able to come forward under the amnesty. There is not much time left. The disclosure and its related amended return filings and payment of taxes, interest and penalty must be completed before August 31, 2011. Once the IRS gets your name from other sources, it is too late.

Foreign banks have boots (wingtips) on the ground in the U.S. selling accounts and services. The U.S. is threatening to expel them if the foreign banks resist cooperating with the IRS. This new "cooperation" is why there will not be a third amnesty program and why the second is less generous than the first.

Taxpayers are strongly advised to bring unreported foreign income and accounts into tax compliance to avoid discovery by the IRS, higher penalties, and criminal prosecution.

If you have unreported foreign income in any amount (there are no exceptions, a small amount of unreported income is still a violation) you have three choices:

(1) Do nothing and hope you don’t get caught. I definitely do not recommend this. The government now has TIEs (Tax Information Exchange Agreements), MLATs (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties), John Doe summonses (like those used against UBS in Switzerland and HSBC in India) and a vast collection of information from the more than 20,000 voluntary disclosures already made. The new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) also creates new reporting requirements for U.S. taxpayers and foreign financial institutions. If you do nothing, keep this in mind: "He who places head in sand, will get kicked in the butt.’

(2) Make a "quiet disclosure." Some U.S. taxpayers with undeclared foreign accounts are hoping to "sneak through" by amending their returns and paying taxes on unreported income from foreign accounts. This is what is referred to as a "quiet disclosure". This is not recommended. The IRS has made it clear that these returns have a high chance of being audited. It is also well known that so-called quiet disclosures have resulted in criminal prosecutions. The IRS is targeting amended tax returns reporting increases in income. Even though tax returns are amended and taxes paid, foreign account holders will still face penalties and criminal charges.

There are other problems with a "quiet disclosure". It only addresses payment of taxes and interest, not penalties. It does not address the issue of failure to file the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) disclosing the foreign account. If the foreign account was in the name of a foreign trust, then an IRS Form 3520 was probably due also.

(3) The third choice, and the recommended course, is for a taxpayer with noncompliant foreign accounts to enter the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative – OVDI. In order to participate in the 2011 OVDI, taxpayers must resolve any non-compliance within an eight year period, from 2003-2010. All filings and payments must be complete by August 31, 2011.

Taxpayers have to pay: 1) income tax deficiencies during the eight year period 2003-2010; 2) interest on the deficiencies; 3) a 25% penalty on the highest aggregate balance held within foreign accounts during the eight year period. For smaller foreign holdings not exceeding $75,000, the penalty will be reduced to 12.5%. ; 4) accuracy-related penalties of 20% of the back taxes; and 5) if applicable, 25% of back taxes for failure to timely file a return or pay tax shown on a filed return.

Taxpayers who participate in the OVDI will generally avoid 1) criminal prosecution; 2) civil and criminal penalties for failure to file FBARs; and 3) any taxes, interest, and penalties prior to 2003.

While the OVDI fines and penalties are significant, they pale compared to the consequences of an IRS criminal prosecution and imposition of all penalties for non-reporting.

If you are entering the OVDI or planning a quiet disclosure it is a very serious matter with potentially life altering repercussions. Don’t rely on the internet for your advice. Make sure you get a competent tax lawyer with experience in the amnesty program.