Now Is The Time To Confirm Your Bitcoin Is Tax Compliant

The value of Bitcoin has surged 125% in 2017 alone.  In addition to its value ascent, it has also gained in legitimacy.  While it was once the currency of choice on the illicit Silk Road “dark web”, shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013, Bitcoin is now accepted for payments by Amazon.com and other mainstream businesses.  Whether you’ve weathered the Bitcoin roller coaster or invested recently, you must ensure IRS compliance for Bitcoin.

The IRS has taken an interest in Bitcoin for various reasons.  First, Bitcoin is largely unmonitored and stands apart from the traditional structure of U.S. banking with 1099 forms and regular reporting.  There is a huge mass of Bitcoin value that is relatively unknown to the IRS, and gains in value are essentially hidden from the IRS, and the IRS doesn’t like that.  In addition, Bitcoin has a large potential for tax non-compliance, both because its very nature is anonymous, and because Bitcoin holdings give rise to significant IRS reporting (the “FBAR” form, IRS Form 8938, IRS Form 8949, capital gains taxes, etc.) and many Bitcoin owners don’t heed (or even know) the reporting requirements.

In November 2016, the IRS obtained a federal court authorization to issue a “John Doe” summons to Coinbase, Inc., a web-based global digital currency wallet and platform.  The IRS has in the past successfully used the “John Doe” summons to obtain information from financial institutions (e.g., UBSHSBC and Cayman Islands banks) for a broad class of U.S. taxpayers who are not individually named but whom the IRS has reason to believe may have utilized the financial institution to improperly evade tax.  The John Doe summons upon Coinbase seeks records from 2013 through 2015 for any Coinbase user with a US address, telephone number, e-mail domain, etc., and all records related to disbursement of funds to any user.  A recently filed Affidavit by an IRS agent in the Coinbase enforcement litigation revealed that in 2015, only 802 taxpayers revealed Bitcoin information to the IRS on Form 8949, which is the form applicable to capital gains and losses.  Other virtual currency platforms, such as Localbitcoins, Kraken and ItBit may receive similar summonses for transactions with Bitcoins and other virtual currencies like Ethereum and Litecoin.

Bitcoin’s anonymity feeds its non-compliance, and there are many opportunities to run afoul of tax law and IRS requirements, intentionally or inadvertently.  One issue is the failure to report income with respect to Bitcoin.  In 2014, the IRS issued Notice 2014-21 describing how various income recognition and other US tax principles apply to virtual currency transactions.   In that Notice, the IRS clarified that virtual currencies are “property” subject to income tax, capital gains tax, etc.  This means that if Bitcoin is sold for a profit, that profit is income and is subject to capital gains tax.  The income is reportable on IRS Form 8949 which is then attached to Schedule D of Form 1040.  If you exchange your Bitcoin for goods or services, that too is a taxable event, as the IRS considers you to have earned income on the value of the good or service, less your cost basis in the Bitcoin (i.e., your Bitcoin purchase price).

If you are audited by the IRS regarding Bitcoin, you may have to show multiple cost bases for multiple transactions.  Proper record keeping with respect to Bitcoin is essential.  The IRS could take the position that your cost basis in your Bitcoin is zero, and you would pay tax on the full value of the Bitcoin on the date of the transaction, unless you can provide records of your purchases of Bitcoin.

In addition to income tax issues on Bitcoin income, there are reporting issues irrespective of income.  Because a Bitcoin wallet would be considered by the IRS to constitute an “account”, if you hold your Bitcoins in foreign wallets or on foreign Bitcoin exchanges, then foreign account reporting requirements are triggered, including the FBAR (FinCEN Form 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts) and IRS Form 8938 (Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets).  If you invested in a foreign fund that invested in Bitcoin, the IRS may consider the fund to be a “PFIC” (Passive Foreign Investment Company), which has its own tax methodology, and IRS Form 8621 would be due.  Penalties for non-reporting foreign accounts are significant, including potentially 50% of the value of the account.

Clearly, the IRS’ increased interest in Bitcoin necessitates proper compliance with respect to Bitcoin assets.  The IRS offers opportunities to come into compliance before the IRS obtains information about unreported assets (virtual or actual) and income, including via a pre-emptive voluntary disclosure (offshore or domestic) of digital currency income and accounts.  A voluntary disclosure also provides the opportunity to calculate, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the total cost of resolving open tax issues, along with peace of mind and finality.

Please contact us to discuss IRS compliance for Bitcoin assets, along with other tax issues.

Currency is Virtual, but Real Time is Ticking for Voluntary Disclosure of Virtual Currency

virtual money  In the latest step by the IRS to address taxation issues in the digital on-line economy, the IRS has filed its first enforcement against convertible virtual currency, targeting tax abuse of “Bitcoin” transactions.  On November 20, 2016, a Federal Court in California authorized the IRS to issue a “John Doe” summons to Coinbase, Inc., a web-based global digital currency wallet and platform.  The IRS has in the past successfully used the John Doe summons to obtain information from financial institutions (e.g., UBS, HSBC and Cayman Islands banks) for a broad class of U.S. clients who are not individually named but who the IRS has reason to believe have utilized the financial institution to improperly evade tax.  The John Doe summons seeks records from 2013 through 2015 for any Coinbase user with a US address, telephone number, e-mail domain, etc., and all records related to disbursement of funds to any user.  In 2014, the IRS issued Notice 2014-21 describing how various income recognition and other US tax principles apply to virtual currency transactions.  In that Notice, the IRS clarified that virtual currencies are “property” subject to income tax, capital gains tax, etc.

Omission of income from virtual currency transactions or failure to file, especially in relation to offshore transactions or use of foreign accounts, could result in criminal charges related to tax evasion, filing a false tax return and failure to file the FBAR (FinCen Form 114).  Additional charges can include conspiracy to defraud the government.  Even innocent or negligent non-compliance can subject a taxpayer to the assessment of tax, interest and severe civil penalties.  Taxpayers have a limited time period remaining to voluntarily disclose virtual currency accounts and transactions, to correct prior non-compliance, avoid criminal prosecution and usually receive more lenient treatment than in a criminal or civil enforcement proceeding or audit.

Once the IRS obtains information on Coinbase’s users, the IRS will follow with civil tax audits, FBAR audits and criminal investigations.  Other virtual currency platforms, such as Localbitcoins, Kraken and ItBit may receive similar summonses for transactions with Bitcoins and its more recent competitor Ethereum.  The IRS offers opportunities to come into compliance before the IRS obtains information about unreported assets (virtual or actual) and income, including the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) and Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures for taxpayers to disclose digital currency transactions, income and accounts.  A voluntary disclosure also provides the opportunity to calculate, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the total cost of resolving open tax issues.  Time is of the essence to voluntarily report such information before the IRS obtains information pursuant to John Doe summonses, FATCA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), TIE (Tax Information Exchange) Agreements, etc.  Anyone who has income as a result of transactions through Coinbase, Inc. or any other virtual or digital platforms, or unreported virtual or digital currency assets, should contact Rubinstein & Rubinstein, LLP immediately for a consultation.

IRS Announces Dozens of Additional Offshore Tax “Facilitators”; Offshore Penalties to Increase after November 15, 2016

Throughout 2016, the IRS and Department of Justice (DOJ) have continued to aggressively pursue offshore tax fraud investigations of many foreign banks in countries across the world.  Moreover, according to the DOJ Tax Division, DOJ is “now fully staffed [with] 370 attorneys and 500 employees to pursue the department’s priorities, including offshore enforcement.”  Now, more than ever, U.S. taxpayers are subject to the risk of criminal prosecution and various financial penalties if they fail to report foreign assets.

Taxpayers may, however, eliminate these risks by voluntarily becoming tax-compliant through the IRS’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP), but they must do so before the IRS learns about the unreported foreign assets.  There are many ways for the IRS to learn about unreported foreign assets.  The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”), a U.S. law passed in 2010, requires foreign banks and financial institutions to automatically report to the IRS (without IRS subpoena or request) information regarding accounts held by Americans.  Over one hundred countries around the world and many thousands of foreign banks have agreed to report financial information to the IRS rather than face the penalty of 30% withholding on U.S. source income.  The IRS has also learned about unreported foreign assets via TIE (Tax Information Exchange) Agreements, “John Doe” summonses, “Nova Scotia” summonses, MLATs (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties) and from other friendly governments which share information.  The IRS has multiple sources of information around the world.

If, however, the IRS does not already have information about a taxpayer’s foreign account, that taxpayer can make a preemptive disclosure to the IRS in exchange for lower penalties.

In exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution and myriad penalties, taxpayers accepted into the OVDP will only pay back taxes owed (including interest and an “accuracy” penalty) and a “miscellaneous” penalty on the highest aggregate value of their foreign financial accounts.  Generally, under the OVDP, this miscellaneous penalty is 27.5% of the highest asset value during the last eight years and is generally much lower than the penalties that the IRS would impose if the IRS learned about the unreported foreign assets.  However, the OVDP penalty increases to 50% if, at the time the taxpayer makes a voluntary disclosure, the financial institution where the account is held is already under investigation or is negotiating a settlement with the IRS or DOJ.  The IRS has published a list of the banks giving rise to the 50% penalty.  The list is known colloquially by tax lawyers as the “naughty bank” list.

The list of foreign “facilitators” of U.S. tax fraud subject to the increased 50% penalty continues to grow.  This month, the IRS added forty-seven individual facilitators to the list of banks and institutions triggering the higher 50% penalty.  The new names on the “naughty list” are individual bankers, lawyers, trustees or financial advisors who assisted their U.S. clients in hiding assets and income from the IRS.  Although these forty-seven new facilitators were added in October 2016, taxpayers can still avoid the higher penalty associated with these facilitators if taxpayers make a voluntary disclosure by November 15, 2016.  After that date, the penalty will jump to 50%.  Because the IRS and DOJ continue to add to the list of institutions subject to the increased penalty, the longer a taxpayer waits to come forward, the more likely they are to be subjected to the 50% penalty.

The IRS and DOJ’s continued persistence in attacking offshore banking “secrecy”, combined with the reach of the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and inter-governmental cooperation, makes it almost certain that the IRS will discover taxpayers’ undeclared foreign assets.  Therefore, now is the time to consult with U.S. tax counsel on the best ways to come into IRS compliance, while minimizing exposure and ensuring continued access to the foreign funds.

 

Switzerland Defeated, the U.S. Turns Against Accounts in Other Countries

Recently, the last Swiss banks to seek non-prosecution agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have paid their fines and revealed the identities of their U.S. account holders.  The U.S. Government is able to credibly announce that Swiss banking secrecy has been thoroughly defeated.  Contemporaneous with the victory over Swiss banks, the U.S. has turned its attention to hidden bank accounts in other tax haven jurisdictions.

On March 9, 2016, two Cayman Islands financial institutions, Cayman National Securities (CNS) and Cayman National Trust Co. (CNT) pled guilty in federal court in New York to conspiring with American account holders to hide accounts and evade U.S. taxes.  These guilty pleas are the first from financial institutions outside of Switzerland.  The pleas included details of CNS and CNT creating “sham” corporations and trusts for their U.S. clients to obscure the true beneficial owners of the accounts.  DOJ also pointed out that CNS and CNT continued to provide “secret” banking services even after 2008, when it was publicly known that DOJ was investigating and prosecuting UBS for facilitating the same type of tax fraud.  The Cayman institutions will pay a penalty of $6 million.

The guilty pleas revealed that “[f]rom 2001 through 2011, CNS and CNT earned more than $3.4 million in gross revenues from the undeclared U.S. taxpayer accounts that they maintained.”  That doesn’t seem to be much of a return on the illicit activity, especially amortized over that ten year period.  It is especially surprising that the Cayman institutions, on notice since 2008 of the DOJ investigation and prosecution of UBS, made the business decision to continue to offer the very same “secret” banking services when the return was so low and the risk was so high.

Pursuant to a treaty request, CNS and CNT have already disclosed twenty percent of their U.S. clientele to DOJ, and will now reveal ninety to ninety five percent of their U.S. clientele.  For U.S. taxpayers who have not already come forward and voluntarily disclosed their accounts at CNS and CNT to the IRS, a pre-emptive disclosure is now too late.  Those taxpayers can now expect IRS investigations and criminal prosecutions.

Two weeks prior to the Cayman guilty pleas in New York, in a different offshore banking prosecution in Miami, DOJ requested that a federal court issue a “Bank of Nova Scotia” summons to UBS in Miami.  The summons demanded the records of a UBS account in Singapore belonging to a U.S. taxpayer in China.  In the past, DOJ has repeatedly used “John Doe” summonses against foreign banks (including in Switzerland, Belize, India and the Caribbean) to obtain information about a broad class of U.S. taxpayers unknown by specific name.  “Bank of Nova Scotia” summonses have not been used as frequently until now.  They derive from a court case where a U.S. court compelled a branch of Scotiabank in Miami to disclose information to DOJ regarding a Scotia branch in the Cayman Islands, notwithstanding Cayman’s secrecy laws.

In the present case, UBS will argue that Singapore’s bank secrecy laws prevent UBS from providing the account records to DOJ.  The parallel argument applied, of course, to accounts at UBS in Switzerland when DOJ prosecuted UBS in 2008.  And yet, Swiss bank secrecy failed for UBS (and its U.S. clients) in 2009.  Because of UBS’ substantial presence in the U.S., it was forced to settle with DOJ or else face penalties against UBS’ banking licenses and assets within the United States.  For the same reason, we can expect that, just like the Swiss account records, the UBS Singapore account records will ultimately be handed over to DOJ.

Notwithstanding UBS’ vulnerability with respect to its U.S. assets, it is unlikely that the state of Singapore would risk its financial reputation to protect non-compliant accounts.  Singapore makes a significant amount of money from legitimate international banking and finance and would not jeopardize this by being “blacklisted” as an uncooperative tax haven, as it was a decade ago.  To this end, in 2014 Singapore signed FATCA, whereby Singapore financial institutions report information about U.S. account owners to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, which in turns furnishes the data to the IRS.  In addition, a new Singapore regulation requires banks to identify all accounts that may harbor the proceeds of tax evasion, and close them.  Failure to abide by this new law will result in criminal charges for the Singaporean bankers.

It is of course no surprise that DOJ and the IRS are pursuing undisclosed accounts in Cayman and Singapore.  The U.S. has not limited its enforcement activity to non-compliant accounts in Switzerland alone.  Within the last couple of years, DOJ has moved against banks and financial institutions in the Caribbean (CIBC First Caribbean, Stanford Bank and Butterfield Bank in the Bahamas, Barbados and elsewhere), Belize (Belize Bank International Limited and Belize Bank Limited), Panama (Sovereign Management) and India (HSBC India).  We expect that other financial institutions, in other jurisdictions, are being investigated as well.

The settlement by some one hundred Swiss banks with DOJ, whereby in exchange for paying fines and naming U.S. account holders the banks avoid prosecution, has now freed up manifold resources at DOJ and IRS to examine and prosecute other financial institutions beyond Switzerland.  Moreover, the account information handed over by the Swiss banks when settling with DOJ provided DOJ with a road map of funds leaving Switzerland and where these funds went, the so-called “leaver accounts”.  DOJ and IRS are especially driven to investigate and prosecute these account holders, as they show an added level of intent to deceive the IRS.  Many of the leaver accounts went to jurisdictions like Dubai, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong and Panama.  These jurisdictions are now targets of DOJ investigation.

There is still an opportunity to bring foreign accounts into IRS compliance, via the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) and, for less egregious non-willful infractions, the Streamlined disclosure procedures.  However, it has been some eight years since the 2008 DOJ prosecution of UBS signaled the end of Swiss banking secrecy.  There have been recent hints by the IRS that, given the amount of time that has elapsed, the opportunity to voluntarily disclose the accounts to the IRS in return for lower penalties may be closing.  U.S. taxpayers who still have non-compliant offshore accounts would be well advised to seek competent legal assistance in addressing how to best come into compliance, and they should do this before the IRS finds them.

For additional information, please read our articles below:

Foreign Accounts: the Best Way Toward US Tax Compliance, and Assessing Eligibility for the Streamlined Disclosure Program

Should Everyone with Undeclared Foreign Assets Make a Voluntary Disclosure to the IRS? Are there Less Costly Alternatives to a Voluntary Disclosure?

Regarding Foreign Accounts, Are You Willful? Or, Should You Apply for the Streamlined Disclosure Procedures?

 

India to Share Banking Data with the IRS

India has become one of the latest countries to sign on to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and report data from Indian financial institutions to the IRS.  FATCA was passed by the US Congress in 2010. Over one hundred foreign countries have agreed to participate, including former “tax havens” such as Cayman, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.  The agreement by so many foreign countries to share information with the IRS represents yet another example of the elimination of foreign bank secrecy.
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