Biden administration desires IRS to watch individuals’s financial institution accounts extra intently — will it catch tax cheats, or invade privateness?


In the ongoing debate about tax hikes for the rich and multi-trillion dollar government spending on the social safety net, a much smaller dollar amount is getting a lot of attention.

A proposal from the Biden government calls for the Internal Revenue Service to start monitoring people’s accounts at the $ 600 mark.

In particular, the administration of financial institutions wants to require that they report to the IRS the aggregated “inflow” and “outflow” of bank, credit and investment accounts as per Treasury Department documents. The rule would apply to personal and business accounts, but would not include submitting transaction-level details to the IRS. Reporting would be annual and the reporting threshold would be $ 600 – a level that could rise in Capitol Hill give and take if the idea becomes law.

“This proposal would create a comprehensive system for reporting financial account information,” the Treasury Department said in May. Since then, people like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have defended the idea, saying it could serve as a valuable data point in the government’s effort to ensure wealthy taxpayers pay their full taxes.

Dealing with affluent households who may have “obscure” or “hidden” sources of income, Yellen told CNBC on Tuesday that “an easy way for the IRS to get a feel for where this might be, just some information about it are the bank of the individual “. Accounts, nothing at the transaction level that would violate privacy. ”

Banks are already required to report to the IRS if accounts accrue interest above $ 10, she noted.

It’s not that simple, say critics, who range from the banking sector to data protection officers.

The reporting requirement would be a trawl for regular taxpayers and not a target for the rich, it is said. The suggestion for more information gathered by financial firms and gathered by the IRS could also create problems in an age of identity theft and data breach.

“While policymakers insist that this provision targets high earners, it applies to almost every American with a bank account. This is bad public order and should be rejected, “said a letter from the American Bankers Association and state bankers’ associations to Congress leaders last month.

Some banks not only criticize the idea at the congress, but also let their customers know of their concerns. For example, Capital City Bank, a bank with offices in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, posted their concerns on Facebook FB last month, + 0.20%, saying the idea would “invade consumer privacy, the cost.” for tax preparation for small businesses and “create unnecessary and expensive burdens on banks.”

The fate of the proposal is far from certain. If it becomes law, the threshold could rise to $ 10,000 in gross flows, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ve made some significant changes to the number,” said Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, according to Bloomberg, late last month. (Spokespersons for Neal and the Ways and Means Committee were unavailable for comment.)

“An unprecedented amount of taxpayer information”

There is a link between the amount of information the IRS has about a person’s sources of money and how much the person pays in taxes, according to Treasury officials.

Income streams that are difficult to assess come from sources such as personal and partnership income, which are also more common among wealthy taxpayers, wrote Natasha Sarin, deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department, last month.

When these “opaque” sources of income are in the mix, the non-compliance rate can reach an estimated 55%, she said. For taxes based on wages and salaries, “compliance with income tax liability is nearly perfect (1 percent non-compliance rate),” she wrote.

Therefore, the IRS wants more eyes in more places to see more trends, such as large sums of money that are not accounted for on a tax return. This general idea is already contained in the proposed cryptocurrency BTCUSD, -0.29% tax reporting rules within the framework of the cross-party infrastructure law. The rules made it through despite objections from people in the crypto industry.

In this case, those who regularly provide digital asset transfer services would have to report the transactions to the IRS in the same way that stock and bond brokers do today. Companies would also have to report transactions involving digital assets over $ 10,000 to the IRS.

The average person lower on the income scale isn’t the one the IRS is looking for – but critics say these people would get locked up anyway. A person who earns $ 18 an hour and pays rent and living expenses would have around $ 60,000 in combined inflows and outflows, according to the American Bankers Association.

“We continue to believe that this proposal threatens the privacy and security of financial information for almost every US account holder,” said John Kinsella, vice president of tax policy for the trade association. “This would trigger an unprecedented amount of taxpayer information, most of which is irrelevant to the calculation of taxable income, with significant cost and data security risk for taxpayers.”

The organization strongly supports tax compliance, Kinsella said, but there is a better way to do it using the resources and information the IRS already has. In fiscal year 2018, the IRS processed over 3.5 billion “information return” documents at the end of last year, according to a report by the United States Government Accountability Office.

“A really critical part of the compliance effort”

Lawmakers must strike a balancing act, according to Chye-Ching Huang, executive director of New York University’s Tax Law Center. Potentially higher thresholds could be far overlooked by the IRS perspective on many money moving accounts, she said.

But reports from accounts of smaller value will not trigger checks on those with smaller net worth under $ 400,000, Huang said. The idea is to use the reports over the years as a building block to see if a rich person’s tax returns are correct or not.

Even if some critics describe the rules as undermining transaction data, this is not the case, she said.

“They are asking for very close information,” Huang said, calling the proposal “a really critical part of the compliance effort.”

As for implementation concerns, Huang called this “excessive”, pointing out that financial institutions are already required to submit documents such as 1099-INT for interest income.

Privacy concerns?

Another concern related to the $ 600 inflow / outflow reporting requirement also relates to privacy and what sources of money are being scrutinized.

For example, according to Alan Butler, Executive Director and President of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, it is not clear whether fintechs like Cash App fall under the rules.

“Other accounts with similar characteristics to financial institution accounts will fall under this information reporting system,” Treasury Department materials read in May. Cash App did not respond to a request for comment.

But more coverage could mean more chances of things going wrong or violations occurring, he said.

Butler said he wasn’t totally against reporting requirements, but if it were up to him the threshold would be a higher amount only for business accounts – and if personal accounts had to be reported, the threshold would have to be higher.

“If you want to put in a new system, further disclosure of people’s financial information, and a significant reporting burden, you’d better justify it,” he said. The rationale is to reduce the tax gap, but data on inflows and outflows above $ 600 won’t do that, Butler said.

“We only ask for two additional pieces of information”

When some critics pound on privacy issues, they point to the investigative news agency ProPublica, which receives tax information from greats and powers like Amazon AMZN, + 1.27% founder Jeff Bezos.

During a Senate hearing last month, Senator Bill Hagerty, a Republican from Tennessee, said the ProPublica stories were a serious vote of no confidence in the IRS’s ability to protect sensitive information.

“Protecting taxpayer information is a top priority for the Internal Revenue Service,” Yellen responded, noting that the source of the ProPublica information was being investigated and that it had not been proven that the information came from the IRS.

“We’re talking about a small amount of information, not every transaction that costs less than $ 600,” she said, according to a transcript. “We only ask for two additional pieces of information, aggregated inflows and aggregated outflows from the account during the year.”

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