Keyword: Other Regulatory Issues (tax, anti-money laundering, OFAC, and antitrust)

FinCEN’s New Guidance for Cryptocurrency Businesses – Some Questions Answered, Some New Questions Raised, Careful Consideration a Must

Earlier this month, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released new guidance to clarify when the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) will apply to businesses that involve cryptocurrencies (what FinCEN refers to as convertible virtual currencies, or CVCs). The BSA imposes anti-money laundering obligations on various U.S. financial institutions, including “money services businesses” (MSBs). Under the BSA, businesses that transact in cryptocurrencies may qualify as money transmitters, a type of MSB. Whether a business qualifies is important. An MSB must register with FinCEN, implement anti-money laundering controls, and ensure ongoing compliance with recordkeeping and reporting requirements (potentially an expensive and burdensome exercise) – the consequences of failing do so can be severe. But determining which such businesses qualify has been difficult, leaving many in the crypto industry uncertain as to their regulatory status.

FinCEN previously sought to aid in this analysis when it issued guidance in 2013 on the application of the BSA to “persons administering, exchanging, or using virtual currencies.” Although it provided some insight into how FinCEN viewed the cryptocurrency industry, that guidance seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. Various administrative rulings – in which FinCEN publicly advised certain businesses as to whether they were MSBs – helped to answer some of those questions. But those narrow rulings have been few and far between and can provide only limited guidance for a rapidly evolving industry. Through public statements, government officials have also sought to clarify how the BSA might apply to crypto businesses. In particular, a February 2018 letter from a senior Treasury Department official to Senator Ron Wyden suggested that almost all ICOs will constitute BSA-regulated money transmission.

FinCEN’s new guidance “consolidates current FinCEN regulations, and related administrative rulings and guidance issued since 2011, and then applies these rules and interpretations to other common business models involving CVC engaging in the same underlying patterns of activity.” In doing so it takes a step in the right direction, providing greater clarity as to FinCEN’s interpretation of its own regulations (at least to the extent your business model is one of the many covered). For example, the guidance describes why the provider of a hosted wallet likely will be an MSB by virtue of its exercise of total independent control over a customer’s cryptocurrency, whereas the provider of an unhosted wallet that vests the customer with total independent control likely will not. Similarly, the guidance explains that the operator of a trading platform that merely provides a forum where buyers and sellers can post bids and offers likely would not be an MSB, while the operator of a trading platform that additionally acts as an exchanger in consummating transactions between buyers and sellers likely would be. But gaps in FinCEN’s analysis still linger, new questions are raised, and it remains to be seen how useful this guidance will be as technology continues to advance and new and creative business models get off the ground.

And although the guidance signals that FinCEN is thinking about how the federal anti-money laundering laws apply to the cryptocurrency community, it does not signal how aggressive FinCEN will be in enforcing those laws against businesses that deal with cryptocurrency. To date, there have been just a handful of enforcement actions in the industry, including a civil penalty assessed against a peer-to-peer exchanger in April, which we previously discussed. One thing certain is that, in assessing potential BSA enforcement actions, FinCEN will rely heavily on this new guidance and expect businesses dealing in cryptocurrency to do the same. Persons and entities operating in this industry should evaluate (or reevaluate) whether they qualify as an MSB because of crypto-related activities in light of this new guidance.

FinCEN Shows a Little Bite to Go with Its Bark

Last week, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) backed up its strong public statements about enforcing the anti-money laundering (AML) laws with respect to cryptocurrency by bringing an enforcement action against an individual for violating the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).

FinCEN, a bureau within the U.S. Department of Treasury tasked with safeguarding the financial system from illicit use and combating money laundering, has not been shy about expressing interest in blockchain and cryptocurrency issues. In a recent speech, Director Kenneth A. Blanco explained that “FinCEN has been at the forefront of ensuring that companies doing business in virtual currency meet their AML/CFT obligations regardless of the manner in which they do business.” He added that FinCEN “will continue to work with the SEC and CFTC to ensure compliance in this space and will not hesitate to take action when we see disregard for obligations under the BSA.” But FinCEN enforcement actions involving cryptocurrency activities have been infrequent. Since its landmark action against Ripple Labs in 2015, FinCEN’s only enforcement proceeding in this area was brought in 2017 against virtual currency exchanger BTC-e and its owner.

That changed last week when FinCEN assessed a civil penalty against Eric Powers, a “peer-to-peer exchanger” of virtual currency, for violations of the BSA. In agreeing to pay a $35,350 penalty, Powers admitted that he willfully violated the BSA by failing to (i) register as a money services business (MSB), (ii) implement written policies and procedures for ensuring BSA compliance, and (iii) report suspicious transactions and currency transactions.

The Powers action does not provide much insight into one of the more difficult questions a company whose business involves virtual currency faces: whether it qualifies as an MSB that is subject to the BSA. FinCEN guidance from 2013 indicates that the BSA generally will apply to “exchangers” and “administrators” of convertible virtual currencies. Unlike many virtual currency companies, Powers seems to have clearly fit within FinCEN’s definition of an exchanger – through online postings he advertised his intention to purchase and sell bitcoin for others, and he completed purchases and sales by delivering or receiving currency in person, through the mail, or via wire transfer. But in establishing that the BSA applied to Powers, FinCEN leans heavily on the 2013 guidance. That guidance in many ways is imprecise or unclear and it continues to create uncertainty as blockchain technology and virtual currency business models continue to evolve. But the Powers assessment confirms that other entities operating in the cryptocurrency space nevertheless should continue to evaluate their BSA obligations through the lens of that guidance to the extent possible.

Unlike those assessed against Ripple and BTC-e, the financial penalty assessed against Powers was relatively small. This might be because Powers was a natural person (potentially with a lesser “ability to pay” than larger incorporated entities), conducted a fairly small-scale operation, and paid larger sums as part of an earlier civil forfeiture action brought by the Maryland U.S. Attorney. While those considerations warranted a lesser penalty in Powers’s case, FinCEN very well could apply the same law, guidance, and reasoning underlying the assessment to more extensive cryptocurrency operations. Director Blanco’s recent comments regarding FinCEN’s priorities and this latest enforcement action suggest that FinCEN likely will do just that. In other words, we wouldn’t be surprised if FinCEN brings more enforcement actions – levying more severe penalties – to enforce the BSA in the cryptocurrency industry. Persons and entities operating in this industry thus should focus on assessing their potential BSA obligations early and take affirmative steps to comply if required.

NYDFS to Virtual Currency Exchange: Don’t Let the Door Hit You on Your Way Out

The New York Department of Financial Services virtual currency license is back in the spotlight after NYDFS announced that it had rejected the application of Bittrex Inc., a virtual currency exchange, to conduct virtual currency business in the Empire State. The NYDFS virtual currency license, or BitLicense, is notoriously difficult to obtain, having been granted to only 19 companies since it was implemented in July 2014. Although all BitLicense application denials are technically publicly available (but not published), the announcement of Bittrex’s application denial in such a public way is a first for the regulator. The rejection letter states that “Bittrex has failed to demonstrate responsibility, financial and business experience, or the character and fitness to warrant the belief that its business will be conducted honestly, fairly, equitably and carefully. . . .” The denial, coupled with the requirement that Bittrex immediately close up shop in New York, marks a very public rebuke of the exchange, which Bittrex met with a prompt and strongly worded response of its own.

Bittrex submitted its BitLicense application on August 10, 2015. On April 10, 2019, NYDFS publicly announced the rejection of Bittrex’s application. New York allowed Bittrex to operate in the state during the three and a half year application process under the terms of a safe harbor. According to NYDFS’s public rejection letter, the prolonged application process culminated in a four-week on-site review of Bittrex’s operations by NYDFS in February 2019. As a result of the on-site review, NYDFS rejected Bittrex’s BitLicense application based primarily on “deficiencies in Bittrex’s Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) compliance program; a deficiency in meeting the Department’s capital requirement; and deficient due diligence and control over Bittrex’s token and product launches.” This long list of deficiencies, after such a long and laborious application process, appears at odds with the Department’s statement that “throughout Bittrex’s application process, the Department worked steadily with Bittrex” to address deficiencies in some of the very same areas found to be deficient during the February 2019 review.

According to the rejection letter, Bittrex has approximately 35,000 New York-based users who must now find a new exchange on which to trade. This is not going to be an easy task because Bittrex is a market leader listing 212 digital assets on its exchange. By way of comparison, Coinbase, which received its BitLicense in January 2017, lists six digital assets on its exchange (not including the digital assets listed on Coinbase Pro).

Within hours Bittrex responded to the public rejection with its own statement asserting that the rejection “harms rather than protects New York customers,” and stating that “Bittrex fully disputes the findings of the NYDFS” in its rejection letter. According to Bittrex, the NYDFS rejection letter contains “several factual inaccuracies” which Bittrex addresses in its response letter.

Given the public nature of this confrontation and the status of New York as a major financial hub, it is unlikely that we have heard the last of this from the parties involved. In the interim, industry participants should review the NYDFS rejection letter and Bittrex’s response, both of which provide helpful insight into the BitLicense application process and the requirements that digital asset companies have to meet if they seek to offer services in New York.

The 2019 Token Taxonomy Act: A Path to Consumer Protection and Innovation Takes Shape

We’ve previously written that the Token Taxonomy Act first introduced to Congress by Representatives Warren Davidson (R-OH) and Darren Soto (D-FL) on December 20, 2018, was a welcome legislative initiative designed to provide a regulatory “light touch” to the burgeoning digital asset industry. The bill expired, however, with the termination of the 115th Congress, leaving open the question of what any future blockchain regulatory proposals, would look like. The industry’s questions were answered on April 9, 2019 when Representatives Davidson and Soto introduced the Digital Taxonomy Act of 2019 (DTA) and the Token Taxonomy Act of 2019 (TTA) to the 116th Congress. The DTA and TTA represent expanded efforts to clarify regulation and spur blockchain innovation in the United States.

According to Representatives Davidson and Soto, the DTA is meant to add jurisdictional certainty to efforts to combat fraudulent behavior in the digital asset industry. As such, the DTA grants the FTC $25,000,000 and orders it to prepare reports on its efforts to combat fraud and deceptive behavior. The DTA also specifically carves out from its purview the authority of the CFTC to regulate digital assets as commodities subject to the Commodities Exchange Act.

The 2019 TTA, with the backing of four bipartisan representatives in addition to Davidson and Soto, is similar to last year’s model. Besides defining digital assets and exempting them from certain securities law requirements, the 2019 TTA maintains proposals to amend the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 so that certain regulated entities can hold digital assets. Like the 2018 version of the TTA, the 2019 TTA would also allow the sale of digital assets to qualify for the benefits of Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 like-kind exchange provisions and for the first $600 dollars of profit from digital asset sales to be tax-free.

The TTA also has important updates. The most prominent change is the definition of a “digital asset.” As we’ve previously discussed, the 2018 version of the TTA required that a digital asset’s transaction history could not be “materially altered by a single person or group of persons under common control” to qualify for exemption from securities laws. Because of the unavoidable possibility of a 51% attack, which would alter a token’s transaction history, the language created the possibility that proof of work- and proof of stake-based tokens would not be eligible for regulatory relief, thus limiting the bill’s benefits.

In the re-proposed TTA, however, the newly proposed language of Section 2(a)(20)(B)(ii) requires that the transaction history, still recorded in a mathematically verifiable process, “resist modification or tampering by any single person or group of persons under common control.” Thus, any digital asset, even those subject to 51% attacks, may be exempt from certain securities law requirements, although the language appears to require that a governance or security system underline the token’s consensus system.

Another important update is the TTA’s proposed preemption of state regulation of the digital asset industry by federal authorities. While the TTA would still permit states to retain antifraud regulatory authority, it largely strips states’ rights to regulate digital assets as securities. Representative Davidson’s press release on the bill specifically cites the “onerous” requirements of the New York BitLicense regulatory regime as a reason for the inclusion of this provision.

Critics have been quick to point out that the bills, while well intentioned, leave many unanswered questions and therefore may not provide the regulatory certainty the bills’ authors hope to effect. And even a perfect bill would face an uphill battle in getting enacted these days. But the digital asset industry should nonetheless take comfort in the growing contingent of legislators who take seriously the imperative to balance consumer protection and blockchain innovation.

The Token Taxonomy Act: A Fatal Drafting Ambiguity

As we’ve previously written, the Token Taxonomy Act (TTA) is an ambitious and potentially impactful piece of legislation that, by exempting digital tokens from the securities laws, might remove regulatory inhibitions from the maturing digital token industry. The bill is not without fault, however. As it stands, the language of the bill requiring that a digital token’s consensus be inalterable is ambiguously written and the SEC could use a strict interpretation to preclude many digital assets from qualifying as digital tokens.

The proposed additional language of Section 2(a)(20)(B) of the Securities Act of 1933 reads that to qualify for the exemption, a digital token:

(i) must be recorded in a distributed, digital ledger or digital data structure in which consensus is achieved through a mathematically verifiable process; and

(ii) after consensus is reached, cannot be materially altered by a single person or group of persons under common control.

In other words, a digital token must use an inalterable and objectively verifiable process. This language is designed to include in the definition only those digital tokens that are or will be in widespread enough use so that no one single party can influence the nature of the outstanding tokens in a way that adversely affects digital token holders.

The proposed language creates the possibility that the SEC could strictly apply the requirement that a token “cannot” be materially altered. As it stands, proof-of-work and even proof-of-stake digital assets are susceptible to a 51% attack, which could alter the digital token’s consensus. “Proof-of-work” and “proof-of-stake” refer to different systems used to verify and process transactions on a blockchain.

A “51% attack” is an event in which a party takes control of the requisite computer power underlying a token’s blockchain such that the party can control the token platform’s operation. Typically, a party seeking such control needs to possess 51% of the outstanding tokens, but the threshold amount can be lower for individual digital assets. A party that has successfully executed a 51% attack can change the ledger history so that it can, for example, double-spend tokens.

The SEC could negate the potential application of the TTA because the recent 51% attack against Ethereum Classic shows that the risk of attack against proof-of-work digital assets, especially those with a low market capitalization, is real. And although the proof-of-stake system makes a 51% attack prohibitively expensive, the SEC could justifiably claim that it is theoretically possible. An irrational, non-economic actor could still stage a 51% attack against a proof-of-stake digital asset with an intent to destroy it rather than to make profit.

In the end, the ambiguity in the bill’s language might not have a deleterious effect. It is hoped that a regulator would not strictly interpret the bill’s language to exclude the intended beneficiaries because of a hypothetical possibility of a 51% attack. So, too, the digital asset industry will likely continue to innovate new and more secure protocols that could potentially eliminate the threat of 51% attacks, making potential exclusion from the bill’s benefits a moot point. Nonetheless, as the TTA undergoes revision, the potential ambiguity in the proposed language should be remedied.

IRS Advisory Committee Identifies the Need to Enforce Compliance on Cryptocurrency Transactions

A recent report (the “Report”) of the IRS Commissioner’s Information Reporting Advisory Committee (“IRPAC”) has identified the need for additional guidance on cryptocurrency transactions to enforce compliance on cryptocurrency transactions. The Report heavily relies on the recent experience the IRS had in enforcing the Coinbase summons, as recently reported in On the Chain. The IRS explained the problem earlier this year: because transactions in virtual currencies can be difficult to trace and have an inherently “pseudo-anonymous” aspect, some taxpayers may be tempted to hide taxable income from the IRS. IRS News Release, IR-2018-71, March 23, 2018. Taxpayers in this situation are at risk, given that, as recently reported in On the Chain, there is no voluntary disclosure program for taxpayers that have failed to report crypto related income.

In the Report, the IRS estimates that potentially unreported cryptocurrency tax liabilities represent approximately 2.5% of the estimated $458 billion tax gap. The calculation relies upon a recent article by Fundstrat Global Advisers, which sets cryptocurrency-related labilities at $25 billion, based on taxable gains of approximately $92 billon and a noncompliance rate of 50%. The Fundstrat Report estimates that approximately 30% of the investors in cryptocurrency are in the U.S., which is more than $500 billion at the end of December 2017 (up from about $19 billion at the start of January 2017!), according to data from CoinMarketCap.

While the IRS previously addressed certain issues in Notice 2014-21, there remain significant open issues that will need additional analysis and further guidance to refine the reporting of these transactions.  For example, the reports cites the following:

  1. whether virtual currency held for investment is a capital asset;
  2. whether the virtual currency ought to be treated as a security, subject or not subject to the wash sale rules, or affected by mark-to-market implications under section 475 of the Code;
  3. whether a taxpayer may use LIFO or FIFO to determine the basis of virtual currency sold;
  4. how to track basis through activities in the blockchain;
  5. whether broker reporting is required under section 6045 of the Code for transactions using virtual currency;
  6. whether a taxpayer may contribute virtual currency to an IRA; and
  7. whether virtual currency is a commodity.

Also, while an initial reading would suggest that virtual currency would not be considered a financial account for FATCA purposes, various guidance notes issued by foreign jurisdictions for purposes of implementing the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) have indicated virtual currency does represent a financial account.  This inconsistency, the Report notes, between regimes that purportedly try to maintain a high level of consistency will be confusing to withholding agents and subject to inherent error.

Citing the recent Coinbase summons and the failures to report income identified in that case, the Report opines that many, if not most, taxpayers will report their virtual currency activities correctly if they are able to determine their tax implications.  Some taxpayers will be tempted to do otherwise, however, because anonymity is inherent in the structure of the block chain activities.  In light of Coinbase, these taxpayers are likely to use exchanges outside the jurisdiction of the U.S.  The Report notes that it is unclear at present whether the U.S. may obtain information from foreign exchange activities (determining the exact nature of residence of the virtual activities of an exchange is itself vexing under existing source and jurisdiction rules, and leads to issues of whether the activities are sourced to any jurisdiction or are stateless income).

The Report concludes with IRPAC stating that it would be very interested in helping develop information reporting and withholding guidance on these important issues.

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p5315.pdf

A Foreboding View of Smart Contract Developer Liability

At least one regulator is attempting to provide clarity regarding the potential liability of actors who violate regulations through the use of smart contracts. On October 16, 2018, Commissioner Brian Quintenz of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission explained his belief that smart contract developers can be held liable for aiding and abetting CFTC rule violations if it was reasonably foreseeable that U.S. persons could use the smart contract they created to violate CFTC rules. As is typical, the Commissioner spoke for himself, but it seems likely that his views reflect the CFTC’s philosophy.

Generally speaking, smart contracts are code-based, self-executing contractual provisions. Smart contracts that run on top of blockchain protocols, like ethereum, are increasingly being used by companies in a wide variety of businesses to create autonomous, decentralized applications. Some of these applications might run afoul of CFTC regulations if they have the features of swaps, futures, options, or other CFTC-regulated products, but do not comply with the requisite regulatory requirements. The fact that smart contracts support disintermediated markets – a departure from the market intermediaries traditionally regulated by the CFTC – does not change the CFTC’s ability to extend its jurisdiction to them.

To identify where culpability might lie, Commissioner Quintenz identified the parties he believes to be essential to the functioning of the smart contract blockchain ecosystem:

  1. the core developers of the blockchain software;
  2. the miners that validate transactions;
  3. the developers of the smart contract applications; and
  4. users of the smart contracts.

Commissioner Quintenz dismissed the core developers and the miners as potential culpable parties by reasoning that while they both play a vital role in creating or administering the underlying blockchain code, they have no involvement in creating the smart contracts. He also limited the possibility of the CFTC pursuing enforcement against individual users because, as he explained, although individual users are culpable for their actions, “going after users may be an unsatisfactory, ineffective course of action.”

That leaves the developers of the smart contract code. Commissioner Quintenz stated that to ascertain the culpability of the smart contract code developers, the “appropriate question is whether these code developers could reasonably foresee, at the time they created the code, that it would likely be used by U.S. persons in a manner violative of CFTC regulations.” If such a use is foreseeable, Commissioner Quintenz believes that a “strong case could be made that the code developers aided and abetted violations of CFTC regulations.”

Commissioner Quintenz expressed that he would much rather pursue engagement than enforcement, “but in the absence of engagement, enforcement is the only option.” The Commissioner recommended that smart contract developers engage and collaborate with the CFTC prior to releasing their code to ensure that the code will be compliant with the law. The Commissioner even suggested that the CFTC is willing to rethink its existing regulations or provide regulatory relief, depending on the technology in question.

As blockchain and smart contract technology matures, we expect decentralized and disintermediated applications to come to market in increasing volumes. In his speech, Commissioner Quintenz provided valuable insight into how one regulator is thinking about applying existing laws to this new market. His remarks will be especially valuable if they influence other regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, to take a similar approach.

EtherDelta Founder’s Settlement with the SEC Has Grim Implications for Smart Contract Developers

The SEC recently brought its first enforcement action against the creator of a “decentralized” digital token trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange, and in doing so joined the CFTC in putting a scare into smart contract developers.

On November 8, 2018, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order settling charges against Zachary Coburn, the creator of EtherDelta, an online “decentralized” digital token trading platform running on the Ethereum blockchain. The SEC charged only Coburn, the individual who founded EtherDelta, but no longer owns or operates it. Note that the SEC press release states that the investigation is continuing.

The SEC announced its action against Coburn a month after a CFTC Commissioner stated in a speech that smart contract developers could be found liable for aiding and abetting violations of commodity futures laws. Both agencies appear to be putting smart contract developers on notice that by releasing code into the ether, they are inviting potential liability for any rule violations, even if they sever their connections with the code.

The SEC found that EtherDelta provides a marketplace to bring together buyers and sellers of digital tokens. The platform facilitates these transactions through the use of a smart contract, which carries out the responsibilities generally assumed by an intermediary: the smart contract validates the order messages, confirms the terms and conditions of orders, executes paired orders, and directs the distributed ledger to be updated to reflect a trade. The SEC employed a “functional test” to determine whether EtherDelta constitutes an exchange and to hold Coburn, who “wrote and deployed the EtherDelta smart contract . . . and exercised complete and sole control over EtherDelta’s operations,” responsible. As the Chief of the SEC’s cyber unit stated in the press release, “[w]hether it’s decentralized or not, whether it’s on smart contract or not, what matters is it’s an exchange.”

EtherDelta is one example of the innovation that smart contracts can facilitate. Innovation, however, is not a substitute for compliance. Indeed, in the SEC’s press release announcing the settlement, Co-Director of Enforcement Steven Peiken acknowledged that blockchain technology is ushering in significant innovation to the securities markets, but cautioned that “to protect investors, this innovation necessitates the SEC’s thoughtful oversight of digital markets and enforcement of existing laws.”

Significantly, the SEC found that certain transactions on the platform involved digital tokens that constitute securities, but declined to identify those tokens. Senior SEC officials have previously stated that ether is not a security, but this case shows that the SEC has not reached the same determination for all tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain.

IRS to Virtual Currency Traders: No Formal Voluntary Disclosure Program

The IRS recently announced that it is not planning to establish a formal voluntary disclosure program for taxpayers who have unreported income derived from virtual currencies. Specifically, Daniel N. Price of the IRS’s Office of Chief Counsel stated on November 8, 2018 that he needed to dispel the rumor that had been circulating since last year that the IRS intended to establish a separate voluntary disclosure program for unreported income related to offshore virtual currencies. This is in contrast to the voluntary program that the IRS established for unreported income from offshore financial accounts.

Under IRS guidance from 2014, the IRS classified Bitcoin and other virtual currencies as property (rather than foreign currency). Accordingly, any income from virtual currency transactions is treated as either ordinary income or capital gains, whichever is applicable based on the activity that gave rise to the income (e.g. investment or mining). Because the IRS requires a U.S. taxpayer to report its worldwide income regardless of where that income was generated or where the taxpayer lives, a U.S. taxpayer could have significant income tax liability for its cryptocurrency activities that were conducted and remain offshore. In spite of this substantial U.S. taxpayer exposure, and despite the potentially enormous amount of unreported income from virtual currency activities, the IRS has provided relatively little guidance to taxpayers and tax professionals, given the complexity of the tax issues and reporting requirements triggered by virtual currencies. At the same time, as discussed previously in On the Chain, the IRS is preparing to collect the massive amount of tax from unreported income from Bitcoin-related trades.

The IRS is Closing in on Cases Regarding Bitcoin Income Reporting

Following a several-year court fight, the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS) appears to have obtained a substantial amount of information regarding individuals’ transactions in cryptocurrency, and the agency might be in a position to make criminal referrals of failures to report income from such transactions. In December 2016, the IRS, believing that virtual currency gains have been widely underreported, issued a summons demanding that Coinbase, the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange, produce a wide range of records relating to approximately 500,000 Coinbase customers who transferred Bitcoin, a virtual currency, from 2013 to 2015. Formed in 2012, Coinbase has served at least 5.9 million customers and handled $6 billion in transactions. Coinbase did not comply with the summons.

In seeking to enforce the summons in the Northern District of California, the IRS cited the fact that while approximately 83 percent or 84 percent of taxpayers filed returns electronically, only between 800 and 900 persons electronically filed a Form 8949, Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets, that included a property description that was “likely related to bitcoin” in each of the years 2013 through 2015. Presumably, the IRS believes that more than 900 people made gains on bitcoin trading during that period.

On November 28, 2017, the court enforced but modified the summons by requiring Coinbase to provide documents for accounts with at least the equivalent of $20,000 in any one transaction type (buy, sell, send or receive) in any one year from 2013 to 2015. The order required Coinbase to provide: (1) the taxpayer’s ID number, name, birth date and address; (2) records of account activity, including transaction logs or other records identifying the date, amount and type of transaction, i.e., purchase/sale/exchange, the post-transaction balance and the names of counterparties to the transaction; and (3) all periodic statements of account or invoices (or the equivalent).

The IRS appears to be getting closer to the prospect of criminal cases:

  • In March 2018, Coinbase informed 13,000 of its customers that it would be giving information on their accounts to the IRS.
  • At the recent Tax Controversy Institute in Beverly Hills, Darren Guillot, Director (Field Collection), IRS Small Business/Self-Employed Division, said that “[he] has had access to the response to the John Doe summons served on Coinbase, Inc. for two months and has shared that information with revenue officers across the country.”
  • Bryant Jackson, Assistant Special Agent in Charge (Los Angeles), IRS Criminal Investigation Division, recently said that CI has been expecting fraud referrals from the Coinbase summons response.
  • CI and the Justice Department Tax Division have been discussing those anticipated cases and issues that may arise in them, such as proof of willfulness.

It is noteworthy that in Notice 2014-21, the IRS answered a series of questions related to the taxation of cryptocurrency (which it refers to as “virtual currency”). In the Notice, the IRS indicated that penalties would apply for failures related to the reporting of gains under section 6662 and failure to file information returns under sections 6721 and 6722. While the Notice specifically provided that penalty relief may be available to taxpayers and persons required to file an information return who are able to establish reasonable cause, it did not provide any indication as to whether reasonable cause relief would be available for taxpayers who failed to report cryptocurrency-related gains. More recently, on July 14, the Large Business and International division of the IRS initiated a Virtual Currency Compliance Campaign to address noncompliance issues.

While there may be valid reasons for failure to report cryptocurrency-related gains, taxpayers who are among the 13,000 Coinbase customers should be particularly concerned about the penalties that might apply due to the failure to report their gains.