If you're poor and live in the South, you might want to check that federal income tax return very carefully before sending it off to the Internal Revenue Service.

A study by the General Accounting Office found that 47 percent of randomly audited taxpayers over the past three years live in 11 Southern states. Overall, in the South and nationwide, more than 85 percent of those audited randomly had incomes below $25,000.The number of taxpayers selected at random for audits is small, compared with the total number of IRS audits. During the 1994-1996 tax years, for example, the GAO said only 2,961 of the 5.6 million returns audited were selected at random.

Random audits are restricted to groups the IRS has suspicions about, one of which comprises low-income working families who claim the earned income tax credit. To qualify for that credit, a couple with one child must earn less than $25,760, with virtually no interest or other unearned income.

"The emphasis on attacking the poor is unconscionable," said Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., who requested the GAO study. "You can't help but conclude that they've decided if they go after somebody who's defenseless, it's easier."

But House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other prominent Republicans repeatedly have attacked the earned income tax program as a prime example of fraud and abuse in government. Last April, the Treasury Department reported that 26 percent of claims for the benefit - $4.4 billion worth - went to unqualified recipients. Gingrich has even suggested abolishing inheritance taxes, the lost revenue recouped by tightening the earned income tax program.

Agency officials contend the 2,961 random audits weren't truly random.