Watch Out Cryptocurrency Owners, The IRS Is On The Hunt

July 31, 2019 | By: Robert A. Green, CPA | Read it on

The massive tax bust of crypto owners has begun with the IRS mailing 10,000 letters to crypto account owners. These letters educate crypto account holders about the rules and tell taxpayers to review their tax reporting for crypto transactions to be sure they reported income correctly. If necessary, taxpayers should file amended tax returns and or late returns. These tax returns should be marked with the corresponding letter type (i.e., Letter 6173, 6174 or 6174-A) and mailed to a particular IRS address. In other words, these tax filings won’t be a needle in the haystack and the IRS will take a close look. Many audits may follow.

IRS Letter 6173

“We have information that you have or had one or more accounts containing virtual currency and may not have met your U.S. tax filing and reporting requirements for transactions involving virtual currency, which include cryptocurrency and non-crypto virtual currencies.”

The IRS might know there is unreported income based on tax information obtained through enforcement actions, which include the summons against U.S. Coinbase customers. You received the letter because you didn’t file a tax return, which should have included virtual currency transactions. Alternatively, you filed a return but did not report virtual currency transactions. You must reply to this tax notice by submitting a correct late tax return or an amended return. If you disagree with the IRS, the letter requires a full explanation with a signed statement declared under penalties of perjury.

Letter 6173 is a severe tax notice, and you should not dig yourself into a bigger hole with an incorrect reply. In some cases, perjury could be a felony. The letter states, “If we don’t hear from you by the “respond by” date we may refer your tax account for examination.”

I wonder how the IRS will conduct its audits of virtual currency transactions. They will need a list of all coin exchanges and private wallets and probably have to use trade accounting software in the same way a taxpayer would.

IRS Letter 6174

“We have information that you have or had one or more accounts containing virtual currency but may not know the requirements for reporting transactions involving virtual currency, which include cryptocurrency and non-crypto virtual currencies. After reviewing the (educational) information below, if you believe you didn’t accurately report your virtual currency transactions on a federal income tax return, you should file amended returns or delinquent returns if you didn’t file a return for one or more taxable years.”

The key phrase is that the taxpayer “may not know” crypto tax treatment. It sounds like the IRS does not have sufficient information indicating unreported income. Letter 6174 is an “educational letter,” and it states, “you do not need to respond to this letter.” If you received this tax notice, then you should review your crypto tax reporting and consider filing an amended tax return, if appropriate. Consider the IRS advice a warning shot across your bow.

Letter 6174-A

“We have information that you have or had one or more accounts containing virtual currency but may not have properly reported your transactions involving virtual currency, which include cryptocurrency and non-crypto virtual currencies. After reviewing the information below, if you believe you didn’t accurately report your virtual currency transactions on a federal income tax return, you should file amended returns or delinquent returns if you didn’t file a return for one or more taxable years. You do not need to respond to this letter.”

The critical phrase is “may not have properly reported.” That’s different from Letter 6173, which states “may not have met” your tax requirements. Letter 6174-A implies the taxpayer reported crypto transactions, but perhaps not in the proper way. For example, maybe the taxpayer used Schedule C (business income) instead of Form 8949 (capital gains). Perhaps they used like-kind exchanges, and the IRS might not allow that. Conversely, Letter 6173 indicates the taxpayer did not report crypto transactions at all.

The IRS has various types of tax information for virtual currency account owners, and it selected the letter that best matched their knowledge base. The IRS is also using third-party services to obtain more tax information. It’s wise to come clean now if you know you have errors in reporting crypto transactions. Historically, taxpayers have performed better in seeking abatement of penalties if they come forward to the IRS before getting busted first.

Civil and criminal prosecution and FBAR reporting
The IRS stressed, “Taxpayers who do not properly report the income tax consequences of virtual currency transactions are, when appropriate, liable for tax, penalties, and interest. In some cases, taxpayers could be subject to criminal prosecution.” The IRS sent mob boss Al Capone to prison for tax evasion, which was less challenging than indicting him for unlawful bootlegging. Learn about accuracy-related penalties and what constitutes reasonable cause for reduction of penalties.

The IRS Virtual Currency Compliance campaign reminds me of IRS initiatives to hunt down hidden offshore bank and brokerage accounts. FATCA legislation forced foreign banks into reporting on U.S. resident accounts. The IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) helped taxpayers come clean with voluntary reporting. That led to reduced penalties, which otherwise were onerous. Some tax cheats used foreign bank accounts to conceal business income from the IRS. Others protected assets with offshore structures and only did not correctly report portfolio income.

In retrospect, it seems the IRS made a mistake in (unofficially) waiving foreign bank account report FinCEN 114 and Form 8938 for offshore virtual currency accounts. Virtual currency is “property,” which did not meet the requirements for FinCEN 114 and Form 8938 (Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets). There are significant penalties for not filing FinCEN 114 (previously known as FBAR) on time with the U.S. Treasury. Once you put Treasury on notice of owning these accounts, it dissuades you from hiding income from the IRS on those same accounts.

Coin-to-coin exchanges
In the educational section of these IRS letters, it states that crypto-to-crypto trades (i.e., Bitcoin for Ether) are taxable capital gains. The letter does not mention Section 1031 or like-kind exchanges being allowed on pre-2018 trades. (The new tax law TCJA restricted like-kind exchanges to real property only, starting in 2018.) Many crypto traders did not report deferred capital gains on coin-to-coin trades. Some may have, but they omitted the required Form 8824.

I’ve questioned whether coin-to-coin trades qualify for like-kind exchange treatment in years before 2018. Different types of virtual currencies might not be eligible as like-kind property, and coin exchanges are not qualified intermediaries. Multi-party like-kind exchanges require both.

Tax information statements and trade accounting
The IRS letters say to report all transactions whether tax information statements (Form 1099) were sent, or not, for crypto accounts held in the U.S., or abroad. Cryptocurrencies are “property,” not a “security,” so it’s not a “covered security” for purposes of 1099-B reporting. Coinbase, the largest U.S. crypto exchange, appeased the IRS during their fight for obtaining taxpayer information, by issuing a Form 1099-K for larger accounts. The IRS intended Form 1099-K for third-party network transactions for merchants; not traders or investors. Only U.S. exchanges might provide 1099-Ks. Coinbase also provided capital gain and loss reports for later years.

Taxpayers should consider using a trade accounting solution or software program to download virtual currency transactions from all coin exchanges and private wallets. Many crypto owners have accounts around the world, and accounting issues are more challenging when trading on margin. The IRS will likely use this same software in an exam.

Additional IRS guidance coming soon
The IRS keeps promising to publish further advice on crypto tax treatment soon. Why did they send 10,000 education letters if they plan to update their education guidance shortly? Perhaps, it would have been better to publish updated guidance before mailing them. This letter campaign seems a bit like a fishing expedition: The IRS wants more tax returns to analyze before it tackles tax treatment issues further.

Additional guidance is expected to address like-kind exchanges; chain splits, permissible accounting methods, wash sales, Section 475, and more. The AICPA issued a letter containing suggested questions and answers. The basics are clear, and the delay in additional guidance is no excuse for non-compliance.

IRS data analytics
The IRS said it would continue to use data analytics, and perhaps other blockchain technology to uncover more non-compliant crypto taxpayers. The IRS successfully used an independent company Chainalysis on recovering tax information from U.S. Coinbase customers. That may have been one of the sources for this first batch of 10,000 account letters.

What tax evaders didn’t initially realize is that virtual currencies may not be an ideal medium of exchange for concealing income and assets from tax authorities. Unlike using cash (dollar bills), blockchain is a distributed ledger which is available to the public. Non-crypto virtual currency may have a private company centralized ledger, but the IRS might be able to get that through a summons, too. AI, blockchain tools, and crypto trade accounting programs will help the IRS bust crypto tax evaders and taxpayers who are honest but misinformed.

This IRS letter campaign is just the beginning of virtual currency enforcement activities to come. You should take this opportunity to get fully educated, review your reporting, and be sure you are tax compliant. Pay tax liabilities and interest expenses, and then seek abatement of penalties when assessed. Some crypto users might try to claim ignorance or argue they received terrible tax advice. Others might assert that the crypto tax rules were too vague and uncertain at the time of filing. Some tax treatment issues are unknown (i.e., like-kind exchanges and hard forks), but the basics are clear. After receiving these education letters, which are warning shots, there are no grounds for continued non-compliance.

Consult a crypto tax expert immediately after receiving any of the above IRS letters. The CPA can reply to Letter 6173 soon and request more time to file amended returns. The 2018 tax return deadlines are coming up on September 15, 2019, for entities, and October 15 for individuals. Plan to work with your CPA after those dates on amended tax return filings.

Breaking news and more resources

IRS IR-2019-132: IRS has begun sending letters to virtual currency owners advising them to pay back taxes, file amended returns; part of agency’s larger efforts. 

WSJ quotes my partner in IRS Sending Warning Letters to More Than 10,000 Cryptocurrency Holders. “When it comes to preparing tax returns involving cryptocurrencies, Darren Neuschwander, a certified public accountant, said many tax preparers are frustrated because the IRS has long promised new guidance on cryptocurrencies that it hasn’t yet released.” “It’s ironic that the IRS is issuing these letters because we’re still waiting to know more rules,” he said.

IRS Sends Out 10,000 Letters to Virtual Currency Investors, Some of Which Demand a Response, By Ed Zollars CPA for Kaplan Financial Education.

Blockchain Analytics Firm Chainalysis Outlines User Data Policy Amid Coinbase Allegations in CoinTelegraph.

The IRS Has Special Software to Find Bitcoin Tax Cheats.

GreenTraderTax cryptocurrency resources:
Tax Center
Blog posts on cryptocurrencies
Green’s 2019 Trader Tax Guide
Trade accounting service for cryptocurrencies

Darren Neuschwander CPA contributed to this blog post.