South Africa Joins The United States Warning Its Taxpayers To Declare All Cryptocurrency Income
Given the stealth nature of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies where there is no third party reporting to tax agencies, many people still believe that this could be the 21st century answer as to where to hide your money which is why the South African Revenue Service (SARS) which is the U.S. equivalent of the IRS announced last week warning South African taxpayers against forgetting to report all their cryptocurrency transactions.
Taxation Of Crypto-currency
SARS stated that cryptocurrencies are not regarded by the agency as a currency for income tax purposes or Capital Gains Tax, rather they are regarded as “assets of an intangible nature”. In other words, cryptocurrency should be regarded as property. The IRS takes this same position which it announced in 2014 under Notice 2014-21. Therefore, selling, spending and even exchanging crypto for other tokens all likely have capital gain implications. Likewise, receiving it as compensation or by other means will be ordinary income.
Some would think that if bitcoin is property, trades should be tax deferred under the like-kind changes rues of IRC Sec. 1031. Under that theory someone who owned Bitcoin could diversify their holdings into Ethereum or Litecoin, and plausibly tell the IRS it created no tax obligations. Unfortunately, the new Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 does away with that loophole making it clear that “like kind exchanges” which lets people swap an asset for a similar one without triggering a tax obligation are not available for non-real estate assets.
While bitcoin receives most of the attention these days, it is only one of hundreds of cryptocurrencies. Everything discussed with regard to bitcoin taxation applies to all cryptocurrencies.
Here are the basic tax rules on specific crypto transactions:
- Trading cryptocurrencies produces capital gains or losses, with the latter being able to offset gains and reduce tax.
- Exchanging one token for another — for example, using Ethereum to purchase an altcoin — creates a taxable event. The token is treated as being sold, thus generating capital gains or losses.
- Receiving payments in crypto in exchange for products or services or as salary is treated as ordinary income at the fair market value of the coin at the time of receipt.
- Spending crypto is a tax event and may generate capital gains or losses, which can be short-term or long-term. For example, say you bought one coin for $500. If that coin was then worth $700 and you bought a $700 gift card, there is a $200 taxable gain. Depending on the holding period, it could be a short- or long-term capital gain subject to different rates.
- Converting a cryptocurrency to U.S. dollars or another currency at a gain is a taxable event, as it is treated as being sold, thus generating capital gains.
- Air drops are considered ordinary income on the day of the air drop. That value will become the basis of the coin. When it’s sold, exchanged, etc., there will be a capital gain.
- Mining coins is considered ordinary income equal to the fair market value of the coin the day it was successfully mined.
- Initial coin offerings do not fall under the IRS’s tax-free treatment for raising capital. Thus, they produce ordinary income to individuals and businesses alike.
IRS Investigative Action
South Africa is following the trend of other countries to continue their investigative efforts to find non-compliant taxpayers and following the success in quashing the effectiveness of the Swiss bank secrecy laws in 2010 when the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”) was enacted, the IRS is certainly on top of this. FATCA forces foreign banks to disclose information on U.S. account holders which the IRS receives and matches the information reported by U.S. taxpayers. No longer can taxpayers avoid reporting income on their foreign bank accounts. No longer can taxpayers avoid disclosing their foreign bank accounts.
Given the ability for taxpayers to engage in bitcoin transactions without proper tax reporting, the IRS though has stepped up its investigation efforts to uncover non-compliant taxpayers.
A John Doe Summons issued by IRS was ruled enforceable by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley in November 2017 (United States v. Coinbase, Inc., United States District Court, Northern District Of California, Case No.17-cv-01431). Coinbase located in San Francisco is the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States. Under the order, Coinbase will be required to turn over the names, addresses and tax identification numbers on 14,355 account holders. The Court has ordered Coinbase to produce the following customer information: (1) taxpayer ID number, (2) name, (3) birth date, (4) address, (5) records of account activity, including transaction logs or other records identifying the date, amount, and type of transaction (purchase/sale/exchange), the post transaction balance, and the names of counterparties to the transaction, and (6) all periodic statements of account or invoices (or the equivalent). This information was turned over to the IRS on March 16, 2018.
Now while this net may not pick up taxpayers whose accounts have less than $20,000 in any one transaction type (buy, sell, send, or receive) in any one year from 2013 to 2015, it should be clear that this is the first step for the IRS to crush non-compliance for all taxpayers involved with cryptocurrency just like the IRS was successful in battling taxpayers having undisclosed foreign bank accounts.
Penalties For Filing A False Income Tax Return Or Under-reporting Income
Failure to report all the money you make is a main reason folks end up facing an IRS auditor. Carelessness on your tax return might get you whacked with a 20% penalty. But that’s nothing compared to the 75% civil penalty for willful tax fraud and possibly facing criminal charges of tax evasion that if convicted could land you in jail.
Criminal Fraud – The law defines that any person who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax under the Internal Revenue Code or the payment thereof is, in addition to other penalties provided by law, guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, can be fined not more than $100,000 ($500,000 in the case of a corporation), or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution (Code Sec. 7201).
The term “willfully” has been interpreted to require a specific intent to violate the law (U.S. v. Pomponio, 429 U.S. 10 (1976)). The term “willfulness” is defined as the voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty (Cheek v. U.S., 498 U.S. 192 (1991)).
And even if the IRS is not looking to put you in jail, they will be looking to hit you with a big tax bill with hefty penalties.
Civil Fraud – Normally the IRS will impose a negligence penalty of 20% of the underpayment of tax (Code Sec. 6662(b)(1) and 6662(b)(2)) but violations of the Internal Revenue Code with the intent to evade income taxes may result in a civil fraud penalty. In lieu of the 20% negligence penalty, the civil fraud penalty is 75% of the underpayment of tax (Code Sec. 6663). The imposition of the Civil Fraud Penalty essentially doubles your liability to the IRS!
What Should You Do?
The IRS has not yet announced a specific tax amnesty for people who failed to report their gains and income from Bitcoin and other virtual currencies but under the existing Voluntary Disclosure Program, non-compliant taxpayers can come forward to avoid criminal prosecution and negotiate lower penalties.
With only several hundred people reporting their crypto gains each year since bitcoin’s launch, the IRS suspects that many crypto users have been evading taxes by not reporting crypto transactions on their tax returns.
And now that like-exchange treatment is prohibited on non-real estate transactions that occur after 2017, now is the ideal time to be proactive and come forward with voluntary disclosure to lock in your deferred gains through 2017, eliminate your risk for criminal prosecution, and minimize your civil penalties. Don’t delay because once the IRS has targeted you for investigation – even it’s is a routine random audit – it will be too late voluntarily come forward. Let the tax attorneys at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County (Irvine), San Francisco Bay Area (including San Jose and Walnut Creek) and offices elsewhere in California get you qualified into a voluntary disclosure program to avoid criminal prosecution, seek abatement of penalties, and minimize your tax liability.