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Opinion: Creepy Pa. Tax Video Misses the Mark

Tom, we do know who you are.

It’s a clever, faux-sci-fi ad: The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue launched a commercial that seems to take on the view from a spy satellite, zooming closer into the house of a fictitious tax-dodger named Tom.

“Your name is Tom,” an officious female voice-over says. “You live just off of Fifth Street. Nice car, Tom, nice house. What’s not so nice is you owe Pennsylvania $4,212 in back taxes. Listen Tom, we can make this easy. Pay online by June 18th and we’ll skip your penalty and take half off your interest because, Tom, we do know who you are.”

But the tongue-in-cheek Big Brother tone may not go over so well in an era of mistrust of government, dislike of taxes, and paranoia about rising government surveillance.

In the reactionary wasteland of YouTube commentary, for example, nearly all the comments are negative, including some with obscenities. One commentator noticed that the video doesn’t include a tag line identifying Ed Rendell as the state’s governor–unlike many state Web pages, PSAs and of course, the highway signs welcoming you to the state.

“Your name is the Pennsylvania Revenue Service, nice office you have, nice chair,” wrote one table turner. “Whats [sic] not so nice is you? are trying to bully the people of Pennsylvania. Now we can do this the easy or the hard way. We the people created you and we can just as easily disband you. We suggest you stop trying intimidate us, because, Pennsylvania Revenue Service, you work for us.”

“U.S. Citizens, at this very moment, we have a drone loitering? over your house,” says another.

“Disgusting fascist filth,” says yet another.

OK, you say, but honest folks who pay their taxes have nothing to worry about, right?

Not exactly. Years ago, during a cross-country move, I temporarily forwarded my mail to an address in Maryland. Years later, a collection agency contacted me demanding thousands of dollars in back taxes, interest in penalties–although I had never resided or worked in Maryland. The matter had reached a collection agency because the state tried to reach me at the place I never lived. It took plenty of letters and phone calls, and finally a copy of a different state’s tax returns, to settle the matter. Then a few years later, Maryland pulled the same stunt–all using just a scrap of information, namely a Postal Service forwarding request.

Bottom line: Even with all that satellite surveillance and supposedly accurate information about Tom in Pennsylvania, departments of revenue, in their zeal to collect, sometimes get it wrong.

Oh, and not everyone thinks Big Brother allusions are as cute as Pennsylvania seems to think.

Gov. Rendell’s contact page is here, but at last check it wasn’t actually loading.

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