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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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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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