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03/31/2014

Actual Taxes for Virtual Money

Virtual currency is the latest product of the global internet-connected marketplace we live and work in today.  The most popular form of virtual currency is called Bitcoin. Now the IRS has issued new guidance ensuring the same old tax rules apply to this new kind of money.

Bitcoins are under scrutiny for a variety of reasons.  First, let’s look at what virtual money is and how it works.  Bitcoin is a payment network where a user can anonymously use their country’s currency to quickly purchase any amount of bitcoins on an exchange.  The digital bitcoins may then be used to buy any kind of product or service that accepts virtual money payments.

Bitcoin_bigToday, everything from webhosting services, to pizza and even manicures can be purchased with bitcoins. Bitcoins make international payments easy and cheap because this kind of currency has not yet been subject to any country’s regulations nor is it controlled by a Central Bank.

Think about how you and your family may attend a local fair.  In order to ‘purchase’ a seat on the latest spinning carnival ride, you must use your cash to purchase a ticket at a booth.  Then you give the ticket to the ride’s operator in order to take your seat.  Some rides cost more tickets than others and price adjustments can be made seamlessly and quickly.  Virtual money operates in the same way. 

When you exchange your currency for bitcoin, you have proof of the bitcoin value in what is called a “digital wallet” which you can choose to set up on your own computer, mobile device or in the cloud. You may now use the virtual account to send or accept bitcoins for selling or buying products and services.  The wallet ID is all a buyer or seller sees, so the purchase is virtually anonymous.

More merchants nationwide are beginning to accept these kinds of virtual currency payments, because they avoid paying the 2% to 3% credit card transaction fees or other transaction costs charged by their ‘middle man’ bank.  The bitcoins received can be exchanged right away for deposit as the business’ currency of choice.  This kind of payment is rapidly growing in popularity for companies who provide technical and online services to a worldwide client base.

Bitcoins are becoming so popular that even money market investors are buying and selling the bitcoins as a commodity.  In fact, speculators are now fueling price volatility because they are buying and selling bitcoins at a far greater rate than the rate of general commercial use.

That leads us to the downside.  Because of the anonymous nature of purchases, bitcoins have become the currency of choice for the online purchase of illegal drugs, illicit activities and paying for legitimate services with the provider expecting to be able to avoid taxes.  There is also a warning about investing in currencies like this that have no Central Bank authority to guarantee or insure values.  

Now, as bitcoins are making a noticable impact in the marketplace, the IRS is issuing new warnings to end any questions about the taxability of bitcoins and virtual money payments.  In a new IRS guidance, the agency makes it clear that, for U.S. federal tax purposes that the same general tax principles that apply to property transactions also apply to transactions using virtual currency.

The Journal of Accountancy explains that “in computing gross income, a taxpayer who receives virtual currency as payment for goods or services must include the fair market value (FMV) of the virtual currency (measured in U.S. dollars) as of the date the virtual currency was received.”

There are also several tax rules affecting virtual currency transactions and income.  For example, some people participate in what’s called “mining” to earn bitcoins.  It is a type of reward system for solving complex math problems.  This kind of bitcoin income is reportable.

Some global service providers and contractors are accepting bitcoins for payments to employees or themselves.  Wages paid to employees are taxable to the employee and independent contractors also face the same self-employment tax rules with payers required to issue Form 1099.

Experts say some form of virtual money is here to stay as our internet-connected world provides global accessibility 24 hours a day.  Your decision about how and when you choose to use virtual money should be carefully considered, especially if you are considering whether to accept bitcoins as payment for goods or services.  For more information on how this issue may affect you or your business, please contact us at McRuer CPAs for a review of your goals and the possible tax consequences.

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