Mar 14, 2024 - Business

"There's a lot of bad information": Beware TikTok tax advice

Illustration of the TikTok logo wearing glasses sitting behind a desk with a stack of papers and a calculator

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

No, you probably can't write off your cat or the full price of your car as business expenses on your taxes.

Why it matters: Those are some tax strategies offered up on TikTok to business owners, and as tax season kicks into high gear, it's a reminder that they shouldn't be taken at face value.

The big picture: There are growing fears over TikTok's influence in the U.S., evidenced by a bill that passed the House Wednesday that would effectively ban the platform if its China-based owner, ByteDance, doesn't sell it.

  • One of the big concerns is that the Chinese government is using the social media app to push propaganda here.
  • As these tax advice videos — and plenty of other things — show, it's often Americans who put up the misleading and potentially harmful content on the socials.

Zoom in: A tax lawyer in San Diego tells Axios that he's seeing more clients get whacky tax ideas from social media — and it's a worrying trend.

  • "It's filtering into decision-making," says Adam Brewer, who is a tax controversy attorney — the guy who gets called in when someone is facing problems with the IRS.
  • A few clients of his are buying expensive cars anticipating that they can write down the price of the entire vehicle, he says. Just as this TikTok from last year asserts.
  • But whether or not you can claim the full purchase price of a car depends on what you're using that vehicle for — how often for work purposes as opposed to regular chores, etc.
  • If you wind up buying one, mistakenly thinking you'll get a huge tax break — you might wind up saddled with a huge expense for years to come.

When Brewer visited a client's house recently, he was greeted by a little white dog — his owner wondered if he could write off the pup because he "provided security," Brewer says.

  • That's the tip offered by chelseaismytaxlady. "Maybe your pet is an influencer and they help you run your monetized YouTube channel," she says. In cases like these, and others she mentioned, you may be able to write off your expenses on food, grooming or vet bills.

Reality check: Sometimes you can write off expenses for an animal or pet, that's true. But filers have to meet a standard that these expenses were "ordinary and necessary," says Eric Smith, an IRS spokesperson.

  • Context matters. A cattle rancher who uses dogs for security could likely write off the animal's expenses. A freelance writer probably couldn't write off their cat for keeping her home office free of mice.
  • Even if your fabulous pet is a star, if she is in just one commercial, you might not get any deductions there, says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer.
  • None of the advice he saw on TikTok — about writing off travel or meals — was wrong necessarily but "you gotta be sure and do your homework."

"There's a lot of bad information out there," Smith says. "The IRS wants you to take every deduction to which you're legally entitled. But just remember the laws are limited. Sometimes it's common sense."

  • The problem doesn't end if TikTok ultimately gets banned. Brewer, the tax attorney, says he also sees these videos a lot on Instagram.
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