Lookout! IRS Border Crossing; Delinquent U.S. Taxpayers Are Under IRS and Homeland Security Cross Fire
By Alexey Manasuev*
Hiding from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has just got much more complicated. Delinquent U.S. taxpayers are flagged by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when crossing the U.S. border and face potential detention, questioning, embarrassment, and other follow-up actions from the IRS (IRS Border Crossing). The IRS has been exchanging information on taxpayers with outstanding U.S. tax liabilities with the DHS. Until recently, such information exchange practice appeared to be more or less sporadic. At the time of this article, however, the DHS appears to have caught up with the information that the IRS has been providing over the years and started to successfully put the information exchange practice in action. Note that U.S. citizens and Green card holders are not the only persons affected by these IRS and DHS practices, any taxpayer who owes U.S. tax and is delinquent may be affected.
There have recently been several instances where U.S. taxpayers were detained and questioned by the DHS when crossing the U.S. border (even in transit) on whether they comply with their U.S. tax obligations. Consequently, those U.S. taxpayers were contacted by the IRS in an attempt to collect outstanding U.S. tax liability. Generally, the IRS sends such U.S. taxpayers Letter 4106 in which it advises the taxpayer about the U.S. tax assessment, tax liability outstanding (including any penalties and interest, as applicable) and any enforcement or collection action that the IRS may be pursuing if the taxpayer chooses to ignore the letter.
U.S. taxpayers residing in Canada, or overseas, should consider taking immediate steps to become U.S. tax-compliant as failure to do so may preclude them from entering the United States or may result in certain difficulties, embarrassment, and delays when crossing the U.S. border.
Background on IRS and DHS Information Sharing Practice
The U.S. Department of Treasury (Treasury) and the DHS have been successfully implementing the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS) that is designed to assist the IRS in collecting delinquent taxes mainly from taxpayers who reside outside of the United States (the TECS may also be used to target taxpayers with U.S. taxes due and frequently traveling or residing overseas). TECS is a database maintained by the DHS that is used extensively by the law enforcement community. It contains information about individuals and entities suspected of, or involved in, violations of U.S. federal law. See Internal Revenue Manual, 188.8.131.52.
What typically leads to the inclusion on the Lookout Indicator List (the list containing names and certain identifying information on delinquent taxpayers) is the filing by the IRS of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien on the taxpayer’s assets and accounts under Internal Revenue Code sections 6321 and 6320(a)(1). Taxpayers who currently reside outside of the United States may not even know that the IRS issued a Notice of Federal Tax Lien. This usually happens because such taxpayers failed to provide the IRS with their current address.
If a delinquent taxpayer is detained, some of the common questions asked by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents include the following (the list is non-exhaustive and is provided for illustration purposes):
- Whether they have any assets or bank accounts in the United States;
- What is the purpose and the duration of their trip;
- Where they will be staying in the United States;
- Car registration information;
- Current address;
- U.S.-related employment information;
- Whether they would perform any personal services in the United States; and
- Other similar questions.
That information is then shared with an IRS coordinator assigned to the case and an IRS agent in the location of the taxpayer’s stay while in the United States.
What should delinquent U.S. taxpayers do? (IRS border crossing)
First of all, taxpayers should not panic. But they should act fast. There is generally a time window within which taking a prompt action may be more beneficial than a delayed one. Taxpayers should seriously consider seeking qualified U.S. tax advice.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” – they say. Indeed. Rather than doing nothing (surprisingly, there are still cases when delinquent U.S. taxpayers are advised to do nothing when they have outstanding U.S. tax liability), delinquent taxpayers should contact their U.S. tax advisor to evaluate procedural alternatives that may be available to them in order to become U.S. tax compliant. Note that some of such alternatives may be shut down by the IRS at any time (for example, the current ongoing IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program).
Further, delinquent U.S. taxpayers should review their U.S. tax liability and provide the IRS with their current mailing address. This can be done by filing Form 8822. Requesting a taxpayer’s transcript of account from the IRS may be another viable option. This may allow the taxpayer to understand what actions the IRS has already taken, including whether a Notice of Federal Tax Lien has been filed. Filing such a notice leads to reputational and financial risks and complications for delinquent taxpayers. As such, being pro-active in resolving any outstanding U.S. tax liability is more beneficial than trying to resolve the matter later. For example, clearing one’s credit history or removing the taxpayer from the DHS Lookout Indicator List may be more time-consuming and complicated than addressing the outstanding U.S. tax liability in good faith.
Delinquent taxpayers should also remember that they have various procedural alternatives of addressing their U.S. tax liability and that exploring and using such alternatives in a timely manner may require professional U.S. tax advice. Accordingly, they should consult with their U.S. tax advisor on the best course of action to become U.S. tax compliant today, before the IRS contacts them. After all, letting this happen may significantly limit the procedural alternatives available to taxpayers in resolving their U.S. tax obligations.
*Alexey Manasuev is a partner with TaxChambers LLP, a boutique tax law firm in Toronto, Canada. Alexey is a U.S. tax lawyer and is a Foreign Legal Consultant licensed to provide U.S. tax and legal advice in Ontario. Alexey can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of TaxChambers LLP. The information contained herein is general in nature and based on authorities that are subject to change. Applicability to specific situations is to be determined through consultation with your tax adviser.