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Finding John Doe, Part II: IRS Secures Another Victory to “Root Out” Virtual Currency Tax Noncompliance

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has scored another significant victory in its rapidly increasing virtual currency tax enforcement efforts. On May 5, 2021, the US District Court for the Northern District of California entered an order authorizing the IRS to serve a John Doe summons on popular cryptocurrency exchange, Payward Ventures Inc. d/b/a Kraken (Kraken). Specifically, the court’s order grants the IRS permission to serve a John Doe summons on Kraken in order to obtain information on US taxpayers who conducted the equivalent of at least $20,000 in total transactions for each year from 2016 to 2020.

If the IRS follows its playbook from the Coinbase summons, its victory here and with the Poloniex summons (upheld by a court in Massachusetts a few weeks ago), will likely result in thousands of US taxpayers receiving a letter from the IRS regarding their virtual currency transactions. As noted in its response to the court, over the past few years the IRS has learned a great deal about analyzing these transactions and is in possession of information from foreign virtual currency exchanges it’s also analyzing. This victory, coupled with the IRS’ increased knowledge of virtual currency transactions, is a big step in its efforts to, as stated in the IRS’ court filing, “root out tax noncompliance.”

As we previously noted in “Finding John Doe: IRS Steps up Enforcement Efforts to Take the Anonymity Out of Virtual Currency,” the court ordered the government to submit a response explaining its need for the information requested in its summons to Kraken. The government’s response indicates that the IRS has made significant progress in its analysis of summoned data from other cryptocurrency exchanges, such as Coinbase, and its ability to follow leads in the cryptocurrency marketplace. The court’s order approving the summons significantly reinforces the strength of the IRS’ crypto pursuit. These efforts are not solely focused on identifying tax noncompliance at a single exchange like Kraken but to identify the conduct for individuals transacting in cryptocurrency with Kraken accounts who may have additional accounts at other exchanges.

In citing its need for additional information to the court, the IRS expressly stated that in its experience from processing the Coinbase summons information, it has learned that taxpayers will use aliases, false addresses, post office boxes, fictitious entity names or other means to disguise their true identity. Taxpayers who create and use false information are more likely to evade their taxes, the IRS argued. The summons approved by the court requires Kraken to produce extensive records and data regarding its accountholders. Among other things, the summons requires Kraken to produce the following for each US-based account with at least $20,000 in annual transactions:

  • Account registration records and user profile information, including name, date of birth, taxpayer ID number, physical address, email address and telephone number
  • History of any IP addresses used to access the account
  • Payment [...]

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IRS Releases Guidance on Cryptocurrency Hard Forks

On April 9, 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released Chief Counsel Advice memo 202114020 (Hard Fork CCA), which details the potential tax consequences for taxpayers who held Bitcoin prior to the August 1, 2017, Bitcoin hard fork. While the Hard Fork CCA concerns the taxation of a particular cryptocurrency transaction, it has additional significance because it adds to the limited guidance available regarding the proper taxation of cryptocurrency more generally.

IN DEPTH

A cryptocurrency hard fork occurs when the blockchain on which cryptocurrency transactions are recorded permanently splits. The holder of the cryptocurrency generally has no control or notice that the hard fork is about to occur. The result is two separate blockchains with two separate sets of rules for recording transactions.

Bitcoin underwent a hard fork on August 1, 2017, and resulted in two separate sets of protocols for Bitcoin, as well as a new cryptocurrency called Bitcoin Cash. The result of this hard fork was that individuals holding Bitcoin in a distributed ledger now held a unit of Bitcoin Cash for each unit of Bitcoin previously held.

The Hard Fork CCA reached two conclusions concerning the Bitcoin hard fork. First, it determined that a taxpayer who received Bitcoin Cash because of the hard fork has gross income pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 61. Second, it determined that the date of receipt and fair market value of the income depends on when the taxpayer obtains dominion and control over the Bitcoin Cash. The Hard Fork CCA relies on the statutory language of IRC Section 61(a)(3) and the well-established case law of Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass Company (348 U.S. 426, 431 (1955) in reaching this result. Those sources define gross income as “all income from whatever source derived,” and provide that all gains or undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, over which a taxpayer has complete dominion are included in gross income. The Hard Fork CCA also concludes that an impacted taxpayer gains dominion over Bitcoin Cash when they have the ability to sell, transfer or exchange the Bitcoin Cash.

Despite the fact that the Hard Fork CCA deals specifically with the consequences of the Bitcoin hard fork, the dearth of IRS guidance on the taxation of cryptocurrencies means the Hard Fork CCA will likely have broad importance to taxpayers who invest in other cryptocurrencies and similar digital assets. Most taxpayers hold cryptocurrencies through a cryptocurrency exchange platform. Coinbase, for example, which recently underwent a highly publicized initial public offering (IPO) and IRS summons for information concerning its participants, is one of the most popular cryptocurrency exchanges. (Additional detail regarding the Coinbase summons is available on our Tax Controversy 360 blog.) After a hard fork, some exchanges immediately adopt the new cryptocurrency and permit its use on the exchange; however, others only do so after a period of evaluation, if ever. The Hard Fork CCA takes the position that a taxpayer who privately holds their Bitcoin using a private key to [...]

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Finding John Doe: IRS Steps up Enforcement Efforts to Take the Anonymity Out of Virtual Currency

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is stepping up its virtual currency enforcement, and taxpayers who have engaged in a cryptocurrency transaction should immediately assess any potential tax implications as the IRS has recently issued two John Doe summonses to popular exchanges. These are the first it has issued in about three years, sending a very clear signal that the IRS is ready to tackle what it believes to be a continuing noncompliance. A US Federal District Court in Massachusetts upheld the summons issued to Circle Internet Financial Inc., including the popular cryptocurrency exchange Poloniex, while a US Federal Court for the Northern District of California required the government to submit a response explaining its need for the information requested in its summons to Kraken. (See: In re Tax Liability of John Does, No. 21-cv-2201, ECF No. 8 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 31, 2021)).

Filed on April 14, 2021, the government’s response provided numerous examples of how the data received in the Coinbase summons required additional requests in order for the exchange to locate actual taxpayers. The response argued that the need for multiple follow-ups defeated the purpose of the summons. It also described how information in Kraken’s possession, such as accountholder telephone numbers and email addresses, will facilitate the IRS’s ability to utilize relevant cryptocurrency platform data in its possession that was received from other sources relating to foreign-based cryptocurrency exchanges. Noting the potential for abuse by an accountholder, the response provided an example of an individual falsifying their identity as the basis for its need for complete account history in order to catch these issues. In addition, the response stated, “[m]atching the IP addresses for Kraken users to IP addresses and other data points in the IRS’s information will allow the IRS to link substantive account information from multiple sources for a single individual taxpayer and make a more accurate initial determination of whether that individual is in compliance with the internal revenue laws.”

It remains to be seen how the court will react to the government’s response. What is clear, though, from the response and the accompanying affidavit is that the IRS has made significant progress in its analysis of this data and its ability to follow leads. As a result, now is the time for individuals involved in these transactions to consult a tax professional to determine if they have any tax liability or potential exposure, including criminal exposure. After the Coinbase summons, the IRS issued 10,000 letters to taxpayers regarding virtual currency transactions. In the wake of these summonses, and potentially others, it is only a matter of time before the IRS reaches out to thousands of other taxpayers.

It is also clear that the enforcement arm of the IRS is working very closely with its counterparts around the world. The need for email addresses and phone numbers mentioned above to use foreign data certainly drives this point home. Even more so, as a precursor of things to [...]

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Cryptocurrency May Be Subject to US Tax: Come Into Compliance Now

Lately, we have been frequently asked the question: “I file US tax returns and pay taxes here. Are my cryptocurrency transactions taxable or reportable in the US?”

The answer for US persons and US taxpayers most likely is “yes.” US persons are generally taxable on income earned worldwide, regardless of the manner in which that income is paid (e.g. currency (foreign or domestic) or property (tangible, intangible or virtual)). Thus, if you have bought, sold or exchanged cryptocurrency, those transactions could be subject to federal tax. If your cryptocurrency is held offshore, a number of offshore reporting obligations could also apply to these holdings.

Now is the right time to come forward and resolve any US compliance issues related to your cryptocurrency holdings. As we have seen in recent cases like the Coinbase summons enforcement proceeding (which we reported upon in several previous posts), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has stepped up its enforcement efforts regarding undisclosed interests in cryptocurrency worldwide.

How should you come forward? Following an IRS-attended conference earlier this year, comments began circulating that the IRS was considering the creation of a formal voluntary disclosure program for cryptocurrency transactions, similar to the now-ended Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program. (We reported on that program numerous times, here.) Unfortunately, the IRS has now squashed this rumor, stating that “IRS is not contemplating a separate program related to offshore [virtual] currencies.” A domestic program was not even mentioned.

Despite this news, a number of disclosure options remain available for bringing your US and foreign cryptocurrency into compliance. The IRS’s longstanding voluntary disclosure policy remains in full force and effect. This policy acts to reduce or eliminate the risk of criminal prosecution related to nondisclosure of domestic or foreign taxable assets, and can provide avenues to reduce civil penalties as well. Further, the IRS’s Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures and Delinquent International Information Return Procedures are still active and may provide reduced (or no) penalties for US international tax non-compliance in appropriate cases.

Practice Point: Beyond the short answer of “yes, cryptocurrency is taxable,” a number of open questions regarding the taxation and reporting of cryptocurrency in the US remain. For example, determining what offshore crypto holdings are subject to FBAR and Form 8938 reporting remains complicated and unclear. Also, although tax reform has eliminated the use of Section 1031 exchanges to avoid currently being taxed for personal property like cryptocurrencies, the IRS’s position on exchanges that occurred prior to 2018 is still unknown. There are also open valuation questions, particularly for crypto accounts subject to access limitations like lock-up periods. The tax treatment of so-called hard and soft “forks” is also unclear. Finally, crypto exchanges are navigating a number of open reporting and compliance issues. If you have significant holdings in cryptocurrency, consult with a federal tax advisor who understands the tax aspects of this unique asset to [...]

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The IRS May Be Coming for Your Bitcoins

If you have traded Bitcoin or other crypto-currencies, you probably know that their taxation may be as uncertain as your potential for reward or loss. Since 2014, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has publicized how it believes these investments should be treated for US federal income tax purposes. If you have failed to report your virtual currency transaction, the result in Coinbase, a recent IRS “John Doe” summons enforcement case, should convince you that it is time to ensure you are compliant with tax laws. The IRS may be coming for your Bitcoins!

IRS Guidance – Bitcoins Are Property

In IRS Notice 2014-21, 2014-16 IRB 938, the IRS explained that so-called “virtual currencies” that can be exchanged for traditional currency are “property” for federal income tax purposes. As such, a taxpayer must report gain or loss on its sale or exchange, measured against the taxpayer’s cost to purchase the virtual currency. In the notice, the IRS also made clear that “virtual currencies” are not currency for Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 988 purposes. (more…)




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