The U.S. Treasury Department wants Congress to force auction sites like eBay, Amazon.com and uBid.com to turn over the identities and Social Security numbers of a large portion of their users to the IRS--so tax collectors know how much each person made through online selling.
The effort is part of a larger plan, which enjoys enthusiastic support from both Democrats and Republicans, to close what's known as the "tax gap." It's a broad term that covers Americans who don't file tax returns or those who underreport their income, and the IRS believes it to total around $345 billion for the 2001 tax year.
But the proposal is likely to encounter stiff opposition from Internet auction aficionados, free-market advocates and the auction Web sites themselves, not all of which are large enough to be able to comply with the rules without financial hardship.
"It's a total nightmare," said Matt Stinchcomb, vice president of marketing for Etsy.com, which allows people to sell handmade goods. "Our goal as a company is to allow people to make a living making things, and this is just another impediment to that."
Stinchcomb said Etsy would be uncomfortable asking its users to divulge their Social Security numbers, which are required on the IRS 1099 forms used to report untaxed income. "There are so few things now that are private and sacred," he said. "I feel like your SSN is one of them. Imagine, too, if every e-commerce site starts requiring this, the amount of times that data will be collected or falsely collected. There's a huge potential for fraud and identity theft."
But Washington politicians are looking around for any idea that will increase tax revenue without a formal vote to raise taxes.
At a recent hearing, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) praised the idea of additional "reporting of money flows so the IRS has the ability to match up what was reported to what's actually happening." Another Senate hearing on the tax gap is scheduled for Wednesday.
IRS' history of targeting online auctions
The idea of forcing auction sites to invade their customers' privacy through IRS reporting isn't exactly new.
In July 2006, IRS official Nina Olson told Congress (PDF) that it should require "information reporting on gross proceeds from sales conducted on Internet auction sites." "One recent study found that 700,000 Americans reported that eBay sales constitute their primary or secondary source of income. The IRS must have the tools needed to address underreporting of this income," she said. Olson said the reporting requirement should begin when someone made more than $600 in a calendar year.
Olson renewed her request to Congress two more times, congressional records show, but it wasn't until the idea appeared in the Bush administration's proposed 2008 budget that Congress began to take it seriously.
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A Treasury Department analysis of the budget (PDF) says: "A broker would be required to make an information return showing its customer's name, address and Taxpayer Identification Number, as well as gross proceeds from the sale of tangible personal property." Unlike Olson's suggestion, though, it proposes the reporting requirement kick in when someone makes more than $5,000.
"The budget proposal has come out and people are looking for ways to close the gap, so they're looking at a lot of things, and I think we're just one idea that has come up," said Catherine England, a representative for eBay, which opposes singling out online auction sites to report on their sellers to the IRS. "What's happening is there's this assumption that people aren't reporting," she said. "There are a good number of people who are professional sellers on eBay. However, there's no evidence or any kind of statistic out there to indicate those folks aren't already accurately reporting to the IRS."
The company's own statistics suggest that there are 1.3 million people around the world who make their primary or secondary source of income through eBay, with just over 700,000 in the United States.