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According to an estimate by the Internal Revenue Service

(IRS), between one and two million Americans may be using

offshore accounts with a debit card such as American Express,

Visa, or MasterCard attached, allowing them to easily access their

funds on deposit offshore. The estimate is likely correct, considering

the previous numbers we reviewed in which we saw that a full quarter

of a million Americans are physically leaving each year and untold

further Americans are taking their money offshore. In fact, these

“guesstimates” are based on records obtained from an investigation

several years ago, during which MasterCard was served a summons to

produce bank records on U.S. taxpayers from just three tax haven

countries, which is only a handful of what is really out there. This limited

“fishing expedition,” as such investigations are commonly called,

revealed over 230,000 bank accounts held by Americans.

Among these figures, some were certainly blatant tax cheats

whom the government no doubt rightly set about to identify and bust.

But fortunately, simply having an offshore bank account or employing

offshore investment and asset protection strategies does not mean

that a person is cheating the taxman or committing any crime. On the

surface, however, and in the fervor to realize more revenue from

taxes, this is what the IRS would sometimes like to believe.

With the previously mentioned fishing exercise, the government

surprised a lot of people who had thought they were safe offshore.

The IRS gained immense publicity for their tax crusade; and knowing

the effects of their efforts, the IRS began to f lex its muscles, leveraging

taxpayers to comply or else. Finally, in 2003 the IRS established an

amnesty program, offering not to prosecute all those other taxpayers

who were offshore but had not yet been discovered, if only they’d fess up by a given date. The convenient assumption was that if there were

illegal accounts, then the account holders might have something to

hide such as not having reported all their income from earned fees,

profits, dividends, interest, and capital gains, which quite possibly the

good citizens had simply and legally diverted offshore.

In an attempt to hide money from whomever—the government,

ex-spouses, creditors, or others—U.S. taxpayers have often failed to

file Treasury Form TD F 90-22.1. Whether they failed knowingly or

not, this form is a mandatory requirement under most circumstances

and must be filed annually, or the taxpayer risks facing civil and

criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and $500,000 in fines

for each account gone unreported by the signatory authority on the

account. More on reporting requirements later.

By turning themselves in during the amnesty period, taxpayers

who were operating outside the law avoided plenty of potential grief;

and those who didn’t take advantage of the opportunity took a further

gamble if they were caught. Summoning bank records from

credit card companies is only one of many methods the IRS can use to

go after what they feel is theirs. This particular investigation netted

$170 million, so fishing expeditions look mighty attractive, even

when unconstitutional.

And just who were these big fish? According to the IRS, many of

the account holders who were cheating on their taxes were business

owners, executives, attorneys, doctors, Wall Street types, and even executives

of publicly traded companies. Many of these folks were using

their debit cards to pay for everyday living expenses directly from offshore

and thus not paying taxes on otherwise reportable income. How

is this possible? Well, deductions are typically not automatically taken

for these earners because they report their income directly. Income

that lands offshore and then gets spent with an offshore account debit

card doesn’t even need to show up in the earnings column, anywhere.

The fishing trip results indicated that a majority of the offshore catch

were in the top one percent of all U.S. taxpayers.

With the success of the MasterCard case, the IRS had all the incentive

in the world to bait up and head out again. In April 2006,

headline news released the story that the IRS had asked for and received

approval from a federal court to request that PayPal turn over

private financial information about its customers on the mere

assumption that some customers might be evading taxes. In 2005, Pay-

Pal customers, individuals and businesses alike worldwide, had transbarb ferred $27.5 billion through the company’s system. Many account

holders access their money through credit and debit cards, and the

IRS wanted to know which ones might have transferred unreported

earnings offshore.

The outcome of this investigation remains to be seen, but in

the meantime, an interesting factoid is that eBay owns PayPal and

has a staggering one hundred million account holders throughout

the world.