Many Bitcoin owners have adopted a “Play dumb and hope for the best” strategy when it comes to taxes. But now that strategy—never a great idea at the best of times—is riskier than ever in light of a proposed change to next year’s tax forms.
The Internal Revenue Service revealed the change in a preview of the Form 1040 that every American uses to file his or her federal income tax. Now, right at the top of the form, below the address line, is a new yes or no question that asks if the filer has acquired an interest in virtual currency:
The proposed IRS change comes as the agency continues to ramp up scrutiny of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In some cases, the focus of the IRS has been criminal activity involving digital currency, while in others the agency has sought to identify those who fail to report profits from trading.
While millions of Americans own cryptocurrency accounts, a relatively small portion of them have reported income from them. In a lawsuit with cryptocurrency giant Coinbase, for instance, the IRS testified that only 807 individuals reported Bitcoin-related transactions in 2015.
In the past three years, Coinbase and other exchanges have provided more tax reporting tools, but the number of filers remains relatively small. The owner of a firm specializing in crypto taxes told the Wall Street Journal that he estimates fewer than 150,000 crypto owners filed returns last year.
According to the Journal, which first reported the new IRS form, the change to the 1040 amounts to laying “a trap” for those who would feign ignorance of the reporting requirements—and is similar to the approach the agency took to forcing Americans to disclose overseas income.
The aggressive new tactic by the IRS is likely to irk many in the cryptocurrency industry given that current tax rules consider any sale or purchase involving crypto—such as buying a cup of coffee with Bitcoin—to be a taxable event. The industry has lobbied for an exemption for transactions under $200, but the agency has said any such changes to its rules must come from an act of Congress. And while the industry has been increasing its influence in Washington, D.C., it still faces hostility from lawmakers and from the White House.
Barring any changes, the virtual currency question will appear on next year’s next forms. In 2019, the IRS did include a cryptocurrency question, but only on a form for additional income known as Schedule 1 that many Americans don’t use.
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