The IRS Has Cryptocurrency on Its Radar

Article Highlights:

  • IRS Focus
  • About Cryptocurrency
  • Tax Treatment
  • IRS Compliance Program
  • Letters Being Sent

If you own cryptocurrency, you should know that the IRS has owners of cryptocurrency in its sights because many cryptocurrency owners are not reporting or paying taxes on their cryptocurrency transactions. In fact, the IRS is so focused on this issue that it recently issued warning letters to over 10,000 taxpayers suspected to be under-reporting their digital profits.

About Cryptocurrency – If you are unfamiliar with the term cryptocurrency, the short definition is a form of digital money that is not controlled by any central authority. The first cryptocurrency created was Bitcoin, back in 2009. Since then, over 4,000 other cryptocurrencies have been created. Cryptocurrency can be digitally traded between users and can be purchased for, or exchanged into, U.S. dollars, euros, and other real or virtual currencies.

Tax Treatment – One of the big issues of cryptocurrency is how it is treated for tax purposes. The IRS says that it is property, so that every time it is traded, sold, or used as money in a transaction, it is treated much the same way as a stock transaction would be. The gain or loss over the amount of its original purchase cost must be determined and reported on the owner’s income tax return. That treatment applies for each transaction every time it is sold or used as money in a transaction.

Example A: A taxpayer buys Bitcoin (BTC) so he can make online purchases without the need for a credit card. He buys one BTC for $2,425 and later uses it to buy goods worth $500 (let’s say BTC was trading at $2,500 at the time he made his purchase). He has a $75 ($2,500 – $2,425) reportable capital gain. This is the same result that would have occurred if he had sold the BTC at the time of the purchase and used cash to purchase the goods. This example points to the complicated record-keeping requirement for tracking BTC’s basis. Since this transaction was personal in nature, no loss would be allowed if the value of BTC had been less than $2,425 at the time the goods were purchased. Of course, if the taxpayer in this example only sold a fraction of a Bitcoin – enough to cover the $500 purchase – the gain would only be $15: $500/$2500 = .2 x 2425 = 485; 500 – 485 = 15

For most, cryptocurrency is generally treated as a capital asset, so any gain is a capital gain, and if the gain is held for more than year and a day, any gain will be taxed at the more favorable long-term capital gains rates. If the cryptocurrency is being held as an investment and the sale results in a loss, then the loss may be deductible. Capital losses first offset capital gains during the year, and if a loss remains, taxpayers are allowed a $3,000-per-year loss deduction against other income, with a carryover to the succeeding year(s) if the net loss exceeds $3,000.

When cryptocurrency is used as payment to an employee, the usual payroll withholding and reporting rules still apply.  If used to make payments to an independent contractor, 1099 form reporting is still required. If the individual receiving payment in cryptocurrency is subject to backup withholding, the payer is required to withhold the required amount. In all reporting and withholding instances, the amounts must be in U.S. dollars.

IRS Compliance Program – That brings us to the issue at-hand. The IRS began sending letters to taxpayers at the end of August, and more than 10,000 taxpayers will receive one of three varieties of letters. If you received one of these letters, do not ignore it! The IRS compiled this list of taxpayers that it feels has not been reporting their cryptocurrency transactions from various ongoing IRS compliance efforts. The following is a synopsis of the types of letters:

Letter 6173 – Requires a response from the taxpayer, either by the taxpayer providing a statement to the IRS that they have already complied with the required reporting or by filing a return that reports their cryptocurrency transactions. For situations where the taxpayer had already filed a return, but had left off the cryptocurrency transactions, an amended return (Form 1040X) will need to be filed. Taxpayers who ignore this letter may face a full-blown audit by the IRS and could be subject to penalties.

Letter 6174 – This is a “soft notice” that does not require a response, and the IRS says it won’t be following up on it. However, the notice also warns that if the taxpayer had cryptocurrency gains and fails to amend their return or continues to be noncompliant on future returns despite receiving the letter, the taxpayer will be in hot water.

Letter 6174-A – The taxpayer isn’t required to respond to the letter, but does need to correct their prior returns in which cryptocurrency transactions have been omitted. The IRS warns of future enforcement action if the taxpayer doesn’t amend their return(s) or file their delinquent returns. After receiving the letter, the taxpayer can’t use an excuse of not knowing the law for failing to report their cryptocurrency gains.

Last year, the IRS announced a virtual (crypto) currency compliance campaign to address tax noncompliance related to virtual currency use through outreach and examinations of taxpayers. The IRS announced that it will remain actively engaged in addressing non-compliance related to virtual currency transactions. They will do so through a variety of efforts, ranging from taxpayer education to audits and criminal investigations.

Taxpayers who do not properly report the income tax consequences of virtual currency transactions are liable for the tax, penalties and interest. In some cases, taxpayers could be subject to criminal prosecution.

If you have received one of these IRS letters – or even if you haven’t received correspondence from the IRS, but have unreported cryptocurrency transactions from past years, please contact us. We can provide assistance in responding to the letter or in preparing the amended or late original returns to report your cryptocurrency transactions.