IRS Unveils Significant Virtual Currency Taxation Enforcement Initiative

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently announced that, by the end of August 2019, more than 10,000 taxpayers would receive mailed letters relating to virtual currency. The IRS is sending the letters to taxpayers who may have failed to report income, pay taxes, or properly report virtual currency transactions. For this purpose, virtual currency includes cryptocurrency and non-crypto virtual currency, including Bitcoin, Ether and JPM Coin.

There are three different types of letters being sent to taxpayers. Each of the three versions are intended to provide information to help taxpayers understand their tax and filing obligations and how to correct previous errors. However, the letters differ from one another in tone and in the response required by the recipient taxpayer.

Two of the letters invite taxpayers to voluntarily report and pay previously unreported virtual currency income, penalties, and interest. The other letter alleges likely noncompliance in stronger terms and requires specific action by a stated deadline. The text of this final letter indicates that the recipient should expect significant IRS scrutiny, as well as potential examination or enforcement action.

Three Letter Versions

  • Letter 6174 (available here) notifies a taxpayer that the IRS has information regarding a potential failure to report income from a virtual currency transaction. The letter provides information regarding the taxation and reporting rules which apply regardless of whether the taxpayer received a payee statement (such as a Form W-2 or Form 1999) for a virtual currency transaction. Taxpayers need not respond to the letter, but are advised to file amended tax returns or delinquent tax returns if a virtual currency transaction was not previously accurately reported on a federal income tax return.
  • Letter 6174-A (available here) is worded nearly identically to Letter 6174. A key difference is that this letter informs the recipient taxpayer that the IRS is likely to send additional correspondence about potential virtual currency tax enforcement in the future.
  • Letter 6173 (available here) asserts that federal tax filing and reporting requirements appear to have been unmet by the recipient taxpayer for one or more of the tax years 2013 through 2017. The letter then directs the taxpayer to file amended tax returns. If the taxpayer believes that all tax reporting requirements have already been properly met, the taxpayer must formally respond to the IRS to attest to that position. Supporting detail and documentation must also be submitted. The taxpayer is required to sign the attestation under penalties of perjury that the submission, including all attachments, are true, correct, and complete. Any taxpayer-submitted information will be checked for accuracy against information received by the IRS from banks, financial advisors, and other sources. If a taxpayer does not respond to this letter within 30 days of the date on which the letter was mailed, the IRS will refer the account for audit.

Second Round of Additional Letters

In addition to the more than 10,000-letter initiative that the IRS publicly announced, as described above, some taxpayers are also reporting receipt of an apparent second group of letters in the form of a CP2000 Notice. The CP2000 Notice states that the IRS has received information from a third party that doesn’t match information on the taxpayer’s submitted tax return. The notices acknowledge that a virtual currency trading exchange, rather than the taxpayer, may have made the error. In any event, receipt of a CP2000 Notice indicates that the IRS is aware of a reporting discrepancy. A response to the letter is imperative and additional detail on responding is available here).

IRS Regards Virtual Currency as Property

The current IRS Virtual Currency enforcement initiatives conform to IRS guidance previously published in Notice 2014-21, which provides that virtual currency is treated as property for federal tax purposes. As is the case with any property, tax law requires reporting and taxation of amounts that are transferred for services or sold. Among other things, this means that:

  • A payment made (or received) in virtual currency is subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made (or received) in property.
  • Payments using virtual currency made to independent contractors and other service providers are taxable, and self-employment tax rules generally apply. Typically, payers must issue Form 1099-MISC.
  • Wages paid to employees using virtual currency are taxable to the employee, must be reported by an employer on a Form W-2 and are subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes.
  • Certain third parties who settle payments made in virtual currency on behalf of merchants that accept virtual currency from their customers are required to report payments to those merchants on Form 1099-K, Payment Card and Third-Party Network Transactions.
  • A taxpayer that successfully “mines” virtual currency (for example, uses computer resources to validate Bitcoin transactions and maintain the public Bitcoin transaction ledger) realizes gross income upon receipt of the virtual currency resulting from those activities.
  • The character of gain or loss from the sale or exchange of virtual currency depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer.

Expect Additional IRS Enforcement Efforts

The IRS has stated its awareness that because transactions conducted using the more than 1,500 known virtual currencies can be difficult to trace and have an inherently pseudo-anonymous aspect, some taxpayers may be tempted not to report virtual currency-related income to the IRS. The mailing of the more than 10,000 letters and the CP2000 Notices, to taxpayers believed to have engaged in unreported virtual currency transactions, is therefore likely to be only the first of many virtual currency enforcement actions. Additional IRS guidance is expected to be published on virtual currency reporting and taxation rules soon, updating the last official guidance issued in 2014

In the meantime, even taxpayers who do not receive a letter or notice should be aware that a failure to properly report the income tax consequences of virtual currency transactions could result in liability for tax, penalties, interest, and in some cases, exposure to criminal prosecution. Criminal charges could include tax evasion and filing a false tax return. Anyone convicted of tax evasion is subject to a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000. Anyone convicted of filing a false return is subject to a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to $250,000.

The attorneys of O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman, DeJong and Laing, S.C. can assist in reviewing, or responding to any of the three types of IRS Virtual Currency letters, the CP2000 Notices, and other tax-related notice or assessment letters received from the IRS.