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INSIGHT: Taxation of Cryptocurrencies—In Anticipation of the IRS’s Call—Part 1

Sept. 12, 2019, 7:01 AM

Before the rise of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) became a “thing” in the early 2000s, there were many fishing expeditions by the Internal Revenue Service into learning the methods Americans used to hold funds offshore—sometimes engaging in tax evasion. I make the distinction because not all Americans with funds overseas have a guilty mind. Some just prefer to diversify or are part of an international family structure. Nevertheless, the methods learned by the Department of Justice and the IRS eventually led to Congress’s enactment of FATCA in 2010. With the rise of cryptocurrencies and virtual currencies, the IRS is keen to learn more about the application and uses of these virtual currencies and is once again flexing the agency’s investigative and enforcement muscles to track down non-compliant taxpayers.

The U.S. is not alone in trying to understand the use and taxation of these tech-like financial instruments. On July 21–22, 2018, the G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors met in Buenos Aires, Argentina to discuss a number of international tax topics, including among them the expansion of cryptocurrencies and the need for government regulatory oversight. More specifically, the group restated its previous position for Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to clarify the standards applicable to crypto-assets. France, New Zealand, the U.K., Israel, and a host of other countries are bolstering their understanding of virtual currencies as well as their legal and tax consequences, respectively. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, has initiated a working group to assess cryptocurrencies and its impact on corruption and fraudulent activities. Similarly, businesses are ramping up their use of cryptocurrencies. For example, Facebook’s announcement that it plans to issue its own crypto-based payment system (referred to as “Project Libra”) lends credibility to the fact that cryptocurrencies are here to stay and the government is becoming more aware of the need to understand how they work and where the risks for non-compliance may be.

Against this background, the “noise” we are hearing from the IRS and Congress after a sluggish start around understanding the activities surrounding cryptocurrency enforcement is akin to the pre-FATCA investigative mood. On July 2, 2018, the IRS announced a campaign to better understand virtual currencies and enforce individual compliance. One year later, on July 26, 2019, to educate and persuade taxpayers with unreported or unpaid taxes relating to cryptocurrency transactions to voluntarily comply with the law, the IRS issued a news release titled “Reporting Virtual Currency Transactions.” The release provides three sample letters (IRS Letter 6173, IRS Letter 6174, and IRS Letter 6174-A, together the “IRS Letters”) to prepare taxpayers to fully understand their U.S. federal tax and reporting obligations. The opening sentence in the IRS Letters alone is reminiscent of FATCA-like inquiries:

"[W]e 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.

According to the news release, by the end of August 2019, the IRS will have sent more than 10,000 letters to taxpayers it suspects may have unreported income during tax years 2013 through 2017 relating to transactions using cryptocurrencies. Taxpayers are warned to actively report their holdings, correct any previous erroneous reporting and calculate the tax.

If history is prologue, taxpayers should seriously start (if they haven’t already) reviewing their transactions using cryptocurrencies and assess early-on (i.e., before the IRS contacts them) what are the correct U.S. federal income tax consequences to transactions they have concluded using cryptocurrencies.

To help bridge a gap between the available government guidance and what remains open and subject to interpretation—ergo, causing confusion for taxpayers’ compliance initiatives—this article provides a general overview of the U.S. federal income tax consequences and reporting requirements relating to transactions involving cryptocurrencies.

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EVOLUTION OF CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND KEY DEFINITIONS

Cryptocurrency (crypto), also referred to as virtual currency, has been the subject of growing interest by government regulators, including in the U.S., the IRS, the Department of Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the DOJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, among others. Significant market activity, volatility, and investor interest in the crypto space has sparked important interest to evaluate the value and use of these types of assets, including the federal and state taxation of cryptocurrencies.

A cryptocurrency (e.g., bitcoin) is an electronic payment system that is based on cryptographic proof, permitting parties to exchange the cryptocurrency with each other using the blockchain technology. It does not require a third-party clearinghouse to validate the transaction (such as a bank). A blockchain is a decentralized ledger of all transactions in a network. The blockchain technology permits participants in the network to confirm transactions without the need for a trusted third-party intermediary. A distributed ledger in a blockchain allows every participant in the network to simultaneously access and view the information on the blockchain. Cryptography permits integrity and security of the information ensuring cryptographic functions. Consensus verification is achieved by participants confirming modifications with one another, thus replacing the need to liaise with a third party to authorize transactions. Users who contribute computing power to a network are referred to as “miners.” Alternate coins are created through “mining"—a process of using computers to devise algorithm cryptographic hashes that support blocks in a blockchain.

Bitcoin, a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, was first introduced in 2008 by an unknown person or group of persons using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Frustrated with the inadequate response of central bankers to the financial market meltdown and related global recession at that time, a number of fintech innovators emerged with the introduction of bitcoin as an alternative form of money to solving the problem of inadequate trust at the central bank levels.

To better understand the taxation of cryptocurrencies, a brief review of terminology is warranted. The terms “cryptocurrency,” “virtual currency,” and “digital currency” are used interchangeably. A “digital currency” refers to an internet-based medium of exchange with characteristics similar to physical currencies. “Virtual currency” is a subcategory of digital currency, and is defined by the European Banking Authority as “a digital representation of value that is neither used by a central bank or public authority nor necessarily attached to a fiat currency, but is accepted by natural or legal persons as a means of payment and can be transferred, stored or traded electronically.” The term “cryptocurrency” is a subcategory of virtual currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the various generations of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds.

A “wallet” refers to a platform where purchased cryptocurrencies from a digital currency exchange (a platform that permits users to trade their virtual currencies for conventional currencies with other users) are stored in a digital wallet, which in turn stores a public/private key (i.e., a digital address) that allows the owner to access, use, or transfer the bitcoin. A virtual currency wallet is similar to a bank account, except it lives in a numerical address.

The most common virtual currency is bitcoin. However, there are numerous others, referred to as “altcoins,” including ethereum, ripple, litecoin, dash, etc. A “bitcoin future” refers to a contract that a willing buyer enters into to purchase a bitcoin at a predetermined price on a future date. A “hard fork” occurs where there is a change in the underlying protocol splitting the cryptocurrency in two (e.g., where bitcoin splits into bitcoin Ccash). A hard fork results in two blockchain coins. A “cryptocurrency airdrop” is when a blockchain distributes tokens or coins to the crypto community as a matter of protocol (i.e., without consideration). In general, to receive these coins, the taxpayer must already own cryptocurrencies from the relevant blockchain (i.e., bitcoins or ethereums). Lastly, an “initial coin offering” (ICO) refers to developers, businesses, and individuals using ICOs or token sales, to raise capital. Purchasers may use fiat currency (e.g., U.S. dollars) or virtual currencies to purchase virtual coins or tokens.

A bitcoin exchange allows users to purchase and sell virtual or cryptocurrencies with other virtual currencies or fiat currency. A cryptocurrency exchange is an online exchange platform that facilitates trading between cryptocurrencies, fiat currency, and other virtual currencies (e.g., bitcoins in exchange for U.S. dollars or ethereum in exchange for bitcoins). The exchange connects buyers and sellers respective to their “bid” and “ask” price. The users deposit fiat money with the exchange by sending funds (including money order, wire transfer, PayPal payment, or credit card) to the exchange prior to the execution of their trade. The exchange charges a transaction fee for x% of the value of the transaction.

Bitcoin’s attraction as a virtual currency derives from its self-verifying feature where users may transfer funds instantly to another person with a bitcoin wallet as though they were paying with cash. Some merchants accept bitcoins to purchase goods (e.g., overstock.com). Even the Miami Dolphins are offering home game attendees the ability to pay with cryptocurrencies when purchasing tickets for the team’s raffle endeavors.

Part 2 of this series will cover the taxation of virtual currencies, miners, and initial coin offerings; application of rules under tax code Sections 1091 and 1092; accounting method rules; like-exchanges pre-TCJA; tracking capital gains and losses; valuation methods; charitable giving, gifts, trusts, and estates; the loss of a private key or password; theft; and the growing enforcement initiative.

Part 3 will cover tax reporting and filing requirements, and international considerations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Sahel Ahyaie Assar is International Tax Counsel at the law firm of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. The views expressed in this article are those solely of the author.

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