Almost exactly one year ago, the IRS realized that it could be leaving billions of dollars on the table in the form of uncollected taxes, and launched a tax-evasion probe on the largest US Bitcoin exchange, Coinbase, seeking to identify all Coinbase users in the U.S. who “conducted transactions in a convertible virtual currency” from 2013 to 2015.
In a vexing paradox for cryptocurrency traders who had hoped they could avoid the IRS indefinitely as someone, somewhere once may have mentioned, the higher the price of bitcoin rose, the more motivated the IRS was to obtain access to user transaction records. Or, as Bloomberg put it, “the exploding value of the cryptocurrency since its first real-world transaction in 2010 is one reason the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is pushing to see records on thousands of users of Coinbase Inc., one of the biggest U.S. online exchanges. The company’s digital currency platform allows gains to be converted into old-fashioned dollars in transactions that the IRS alleges are going unreported.”
To be sure, as we have reported over the past year, Coinbase and industry trade groups are fighting back in court, claiming the government’s concerns about tax fraud are unfounded and that its sweeping demand for information is a threat to privacy. That however, did not stop the IRS which claimed in a court filing that “U.S. taxpayers, including Coinbase users, have made use of virtual currencies to avoid the reporting and payment of taxes.” The agency said it needs access to customer records to “gain some degree of visibility into a space where it is already necessarily moving about somewhat in the dark.”
Meanwhile, both Coinbase and bitcoin have exploded. Whereas Coinbase had under 5 million users last November when the IRS filed its lawuist, as of last week it had 12.2 million users, deploying 41 million virtual currency wallets in 32 countries that have so far exchanged $40 billion in digital currency. The price of bitcoin hit a record high just under $8,000 at the start of November, more than 10x higher than in November 2016.
The biggest problem, however, and the reason why the IRS is unlikely to relent is that as the IRS said, it detected a “reporting gap” between the 500,000 virtual currency users Coinbase reported between 2013 and 2015 and the less than 900 bitcoin users reporting gains or losses for each of those years.
That would imply that less than 0.2% of coinbase users bothered to report anything on their tax forms. One can see why the IRS is angry.
And, worse for those who believe they will be able to get away with their cryptoprofits unscathed by Federal Taxes, following last week’s hearing, a federal judge is poised to allow a limited investigation into those gains to proceed over the company’s objection that the agency is on “a massive fishing expedition” meant to make itself look tough in the eyes of its critics in Congress, according to Bloomberg.
“It’s legitimate for them to investigate whether people are making money on their bitcoin purchases” and paying taxes on any gains, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley in San Francisco told lawyers for Coinbase at a hearing last Thursday. “I have to give tremendous discretion to the agency as to how they investigate,” she added later.
Coinbase was not impressed. Mike Lempres, the company’s chief legal and risk officer said after the hearing that the company can’t negotiate with the IRS about a “forward-looking, rational reporting system” so long as the agency is suing it. Such discussions aren’t possible “because we’re in this tussle with them where they are improperly searching for private information of our customers with no evidence of wrongdoing,” Lempres said. He declined to comment on Corley’s pending ruling before the company has seen a final order in writing.
Last year, the IRS persuaded Corley last year to order Coinbase to approve its summons for customer records from 2013 to 2015 for an investigation into whether taxpayers failed to report income. Coinbase resisted, and negotiations between the company and the agency resulted in a narrowed request for information about 8.9 million transactions and 14,355 account holders. Coinbase argued Thursday the inquiry remains unreasonably broad.
On Thursday, Bloomberg reports, Corley said she would allow the IRS to investigate Coinbase customers who made money on the currency and bar the agency from probing accounts of those who hadn’t. The judge also said she’ll probably give Coinbase time to appeal her decision before it turns over any customer information.
While lots was said of bitcoin’s drop over the past 4 days, much of attributed to suspension of the controversial Segwit 2x fork which was originally due in mid-November, some are wondering if a key catalyst for the price drop wasn’t the latest court ruling, although it in itself should have little impact on trading decisions: after all, at this point it’s a binary outcome: either the IRS will have access to all those who made money trading the crypto… or it won’t.
In retrospect, it will be interesting to find out, if only based on the number of IRS submissions, how many of the over 12 million bitcoin accounts have actually made money trading cryptos. We will soon find out.