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DOJ and IRS’ Analysis of Crypto Records and Work with Private Experts and International Partners Leads to Arrest

US law enforcement continues to make no secret of their efforts to work closely with experts and overseas partners to prosecute those involved in virtual currency transactions who attempt to rely on its purported anonymity to commit financial crimes. Tuesday’s arrest of Roman Sterlingov, a dual citizen of Russia and Sweden and alleged operator of Bitcoin Fog, in Los Angeles is a clear case that these efforts are paying dividends. In a criminal complaint filed by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, Sterlingov is accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bitcoin. According to a statement of facts accompanying the complaint filed in the District of Columbia, Sterlingov was allegedly running “an illicit bitcoin money transmitting and money laundering service.” (Case 1:21-mj-00400-RMM Document 1-1 Filed 04/26/21.) Notably, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were able to obtain records of Sterlingov’s True Name accounts at several cryptocurrency exchanges. Investigators also analyzed bitcoin transactions, email records, financial records and internet service provider records. The investigation and arrest come at a time when the IRS, together with other enforcement agencies, are taking a hard look at cryptocurrency activity and have recently issued John Doe summonses to two virtual currency exchanges.

The collaboration with private experts and international partners is clear from the press release issued by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). In recognizing the many agencies that assisted in the investigation, the DOJ specifically stated that essential support was provided by Excygent, which is described on its website “as a highly specialized, professional services firm that assists organizations in both the public and private sectors with cybercrime investigative and analysis capabilities.” The DOJ also listed several US agencies that provided invaluable assistance and went on to include international partners: Europol, the Swedish Economic Crime Authority, the Swedish Prosecution Authority, the Swedish Police and the General Inspectorate of Romanian Police, Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism. This ability to collaborate successfully will most likely serve as a blueprint for future investigations.

Practice Point: As we noted in our blog post, “Finding John Doe: IRS Steps up Enforcement Efforts to Take the Anonymity Out of Virtual Currency,” the time is now for those who have engaged in a virtual currency transaction to assess any potential tax and criminal implications, and businesses in this industry should carefully review their policies and processes to ensure that they address potential tax avoidance and anti-money laundering risks associated with their operations. The IRS is working closely with its new partners (i.e., industry experts and foreign law enforcement) to address any noncompliance. As announced recently by US President Joe Biden, he plans to give them the resources to do more on enforcement.




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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