Fast Facts

How does the government prevent tax dodgers from hiding income in offshore accounts?

A 2010 law requires Americans and foreign banks to report more information to IRS about Americans' foreign assets. Implementing the law, however, has raised some concerns.

For example, close to 75% of taxpayers reporting foreign assets to IRS also reported them separately to Treasury—indicating potential unnecessary duplication.

Also, some Americans living abroad can't get services from foreign banks that find the law too burdensome.

Our recommendations to Congress, Treasury, and other agencies address challenges related to foreign asset reporting.

The 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, known as FATCA, created new reporting requirements for taxpayers with specified foreign assets.

IRS Form 8938: Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets

IRS Form 8938: Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

Data quality and management issues have limited the effectiveness of the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) efforts to improve taxpayer compliance using foreign financial asset data collected under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Specifically, IRS has had difficulties matching the information reported by foreign financial institutions (FFI) with U.S. taxpayers' tax filings due to missing or inaccurate Taxpayer Identification Numbers provided by FFIs. Further, IRS lacks access to consistent and complete data on foreign financial assets and other data reported in tax filings by U.S. persons, in part, because some IRS databases do not store foreign asset data reported from paper filings. IRS has also stopped pursuing a comprehensive plan to leverage FATCA data to improve taxpayer compliance because, according to IRS officials, IRS moved away from updating broad strategy documents to focus on individual compliance campaigns. Ensuring access to consistent and complete data collected from U.S. persons—and employing a plan to leverage such data—would help IRS better leverage such campaigns and increase taxpayer compliance.

Due to overlapping statutory reporting requirements, IRS and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)—both within the Department of the Treasury (Treasury)—collect duplicative foreign financial account and other asset information from U.S. persons. Consequently, in tax years 2015 and 2016, close to 75 percent of U.S. persons who reported information on foreign accounts and other assets on their tax returns also filed a separate form with FinCEN. The overlapping requirements increase the compliance burden on U.S. persons and add complexity that can create confusion, potentially resulting in inaccurate or unnecessary reporting. Modifying the statutes governing the requirements to allow for the sharing of FATCA information for the prevention and detection of financial crimes would eliminate the need for duplicative reporting. This is similar to other statutory allowances for IRS to disclose return information for other purposes, such as for determining Social Security income tax withholding.

According to documents GAO reviewed, and focus groups and interviews GAO conducted, FFIs closed some U.S. persons' existing accounts or denied them opportunities to open new accounts after FATCA was enacted due to increased costs, and risks they pose under FATCA reporting requirements. According to Department of State (State) data, annual approvals of renunciations of U.S. citizenship increased from 1,601 to 4,449—or nearly 178 percent—from 2011 through 2016, attributable in part to the difficulties cited above.

Treasury previously established joint strategies with State to address challenges U.S. persons faced in accessing foreign financial services. However, it lacks a collaborative mechanism to coordinate efforts with other agencies to address ongoing challenges in accessing such services or obtaining Social Security Numbers. Implementation of a formal means to collaboratively address burdens faced by Americans abroad from FATCA can help federal agencies develop more effective solutions to mitigate such burdens by monitoring and sharing information on such issues, and jointly developing and implementing steps to address them.

Why GAO Did This Study

Concerns over efforts by U.S. taxpayers to use offshore accounts to hide income or evade taxes contributed to the passage of FATCA in 2010, which sought to create greater transparency and accountability over offshore assets held by U.S. taxpayers.

House Report 114-624 included a provision for GAO to evaluate FATCA implementation and determine the effects of FATCA on U.S. citizens living abroad. GAO—among other things—(1) assessed IRS's efforts to use FATCA-related information to improve taxpayer compliance; (2) examined the extent to which Treasury administers overlapping reporting requirements on financial assets held overseas; and (3) examined the effects of FATCA implementation unique to U.S. persons living abroad.

GAO reviewed applicable documentation; analyzed tax data; and interviewed officials from IRS, other federal agencies and organizations, selected tax practitioners, and more than 20 U.S. persons living overseas.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is making one matter for congressional consideration to address overlap in foreign asset reporting requirements. GAO is making seven recommendations to IRS and other agencies to enhance IRS's ability to leverage FATCA data to enforce compliance, address unnecessary reporting, and better collaborate to mitigate burdens on U.S. persons living abroad. State and Social Security Administration agreed with GAO's recommendations. Treasury and IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendations.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider amending the Internal Revenue Code, Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, and other statutes, as needed, to address overlap in foreign financial asset reporting requirements for the purposes of tax compliance and detection, and prevention of financial crimes, such as by aligning the types of assets to be reported and asset reporting thresholds, and ensuring appropriate access to the reported information.
Open
No legislative action enacted. As of March 2021, Congress had not amended the Internal Revenue Code, Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, and other statutes, as needed to address overlap in foreign financial asset reporting requirements, as GAO suggested in April 2019. GAO continues to believe that if Congress were to modify these various statutes, the reporting burden created by navigating multiple reporting requirements will be reduced. Modifying these statutes will also allow for the use of foreign financial asset information collected under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to prevent and detect financial crimes.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop a plan to mitigate risks with compliance activities due to the lack of accurate and complete Taxpayer Identification Numbers of U.S. account holders collected from FFIs. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) developed a plan to mitigate specific risks it faces from not receiving complete and valid Taxpayer Identification Numbers (TINs) on U.S. account holders from Foreign Financial Institutions (FFIs). As part of its plan, IRS developed a multi-year outreach plan to Model 1 FATCA partners to educate them on accounts without TINs to facilitate compliance in advance of the 2020 FATCA data TIN requirement. IRS drafted responses to frequently asked questions on requirements to report TINs for U.S. reportable accounts beginning for the 2020 tax year. IRS also established procedures requiring Model 1 FFIs to correct issues where TINs are missing or are completed using a systemically identifiable pattern that indicates they are invalid. In addition, IRS is in the process of developing potential treatment streams for common scenarios where FFIs in Model 1 FATCA partner jurisdictions could not obtain TINs. These efforts will help IRS identify opportunities to adjust compliance programs to better enforce FFI reporting of valid TINs and identify U.S. persons who are not complying with FATCA reporting requirements.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should ensure that appropriate business units conducting compliance enforcement and research have access to consistent and complete data collected from individuals' electronic and paper filings of Form 8938 and elements of parent individual tax returns. As part of this effort, the Commissioner should ensure that IRS provides clear guidance to the business units for accessing such data in IRS's Compliance Data Warehouse. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) took actions to implement the spirit of this recommendation. According to IRS Information Technology division officials, as of December 2019, they deliver paper and electronically filed Form 8938 data to IRS's Research, Applied Analytics, and Statistics organization on a monthly basis, and make such data available in the Compliance Data Warehouse (CDW) for use by agency officials. Because of these efforts, IRS staff have greater access to consistent and complete FATCA data that will help IRS business units strengthen efforts to enforce compliance with FATCA reporting requirements and conduct research. According to IRS officials, staff with access to CDW are already informed and knowledgeable in navigating the system and can better enforce FATCA requirements. For example, according to Large Business and International Division officials, IRS's enforcement functions that have access to the FATCA data can use it to develop compliance examination leads. Since IRS made available FATCA data more accessible to experienced CDW users, it met the spirit of our recommendation. As such, additional guidance to IRS business units on accessing FATCA data from CDW is no longer necessary.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should employ a comprehensive plan for managing efforts to leverage FATCA data in agency compliance efforts. The plan should document and track activities over time to
• ensure individuals and FFIs comply with FATCA reporting requirements;
• assess and mitigate data quality risks from FFIs;
• improve the quality, management, and accessibility of FATCA data for compliance, research, and other purposes; and
• establish, monitor, and evaluate compliance efforts involving FATCA data intended to improve voluntary compliance and address noncompliance with FATCA reporting requirements. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In September 2019, IRS's Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement said that IRS disagreed with our April 2019 recommendation. The Deputy Commissioner said that resources that would be dedicated to update a comprehensive plan unique to the FATCA--such as the FATCA Compliance Roadmap--are better spent on enforcement activities. The Deputy Commissioner also said that IRS's strategy for FATCA compliance will instead be part of IRS's Large Business & International (LB&I) Division's overall portfolio management strategy. As of March 2021, IRS stated that it has developed, or continued to enhance and employ, a series of FATCA compliance initiatives over the past year. These initiatives include campaigns to ensure that foreign financial institutions (FFIs) comply with FATCA reporting obligations and file compliance certifications to meet FFI or intergovernmental agreements. The initiatives also include Automatic Exchange of Information programs with competent authorities in jurisdictions with FATCA Model 1 intergovernmental agreements, and an Offshore Compliance Initiative to ensure that individual taxpayers comply with information reporting requirements. Implementing enforcement activities could increase taxpayers' and FFIs compliance with FATCA reporting requirements. While IRS does not have to revise and reemploy its FATCA Compliance Roadmap, it can employ a comprehensive plan as part of LB&I's portfolio management strategy to evaluate FATCA enforcement activities already in place, and determine the extent to which these activities improve voluntary compliance and address noncompliance with FATCA reporting requirements. Without such a plan, IRS risks not maximizing efforts to manage and address the myriad of challenges it faces in effectively ensuring taxpayer compliance.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should assess factors contributing to unnecessary Form 8938 reporting and take steps, as appropriate, to address the issue. Depending on the results of the assessment, potential options may include:
• identifying and implementing steps to further clarify IRS Form 8938 instructions and related guidance on IRS's website on determining what foreign financial assets to report, and how to calculate and report asset values subject to reporting thresholds; and
• conducting additional outreach to educate taxpayers on required reporting thresholds, including notifying taxpayers that may have unnecessarily filed an IRS Form 8938 to reduce such filings. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In February 2021, IRS completed an analysis of Form 8938 electronic and paper filings for tax years 2017-2019. IRS officials determined that even though paper filed Forms 8938 have not been fully transcribed for tax year 2019 due to COVID-19 related work stoppages, they determined that electronic filing of Forms 8938 has increased from tax years 2017-2019. However, IRS did not determine the number of unnecessary Form 8938 filings, either made electronically or on paper. Completing this data analysis and identifying the full range of factors contributing to unnecessary Form 8938 reporting will allow IRS to better address such factors. These efforts, in turn, will reduce the risk that taxpayers file--and IRS processes--forms that taxpayers were not required to submit to IRS.
Department of the Treasury The Secretary of the Treasury should lead efforts, in coordination with the Secretary of State and Commissioner of Social Security, to establish a formal means to collaboratively address ongoing issues—including issues accessing financial services and employment and obtaining SSNs—that U.S. persons living abroad encounter from implementation of FATCA reporting requirements. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) has taken some steps to implement GAO's April 2019 recommendation. Treasury, through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), provided relief for individuals with tax obligations under $25,000, and published clarifications about the timeline for banks to comply with Taxpayer Identification Number reporting. In addition, Treasury led efforts with IRS, the Department of State (State) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to develop frequently asked questions that combine relevant guidance for individuals to obtain a Social Security number, renounce U.S. citizenship, and comply with U.S. tax obligations. Treasury said it has been working with IRS, State, and SSA to examine how they can facilitate compliance with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). However, as of March 2021, Treasury lacked a collaborative interagency mechanism to address ongoing issues U.S. persons living abroad continue to encounter from implementation of FATCA reporting requirements. In November 2019, Treasury said it was not the appropriate agency to lead these coordination efforts. However, GAO continues to believe that because Treasury is ultimately responsible for effectively administering FATCA, it is in a better position than State or SSA to establish an effective collaborative mechanism. Doing so will help agencies address the ongoing issues Americans living abroad experience from FATCA.
Department of State The Secretary of State, in coordination with the Secretary of the Treasury and Commissioner of Social Security, should establish a formal means to collaboratively address ongoing issues—including issues accessing financial services and employment and obtaining SSNs—that U.S. persons living abroad encounter from implementation of FATCA reporting requirements. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The Department of State (State) has taken several steps to implement GAO's April 2019 recommendation. In September 2019, State worked with the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and Social Security Administration (SSA) to develop and post online frequently asked questions on how to obtain a Social Security number, renounce U.S. citizenship, and comply with U.S. tax obligations. Additionally, State officials participated in an October 2019 webinar hosted by IRS regarding newly approved tax relief procedures for certain former citizens who have renounced U.S. citizenship and seek to be federal tax compliant. State also established procedures with SSA for its embassies and consulates abroad to help U.S. citizens apply for a Social Security number during the passport application process without SSA permission, thus removing a significant barrier in serving U.S. citizens abroad. In 2020, State said it interacted virtually with Treasury, IRS, and SSA regarding Social Security numbers and customer service, and to deal with critical issues when they occurred. However, as of March 2021, State lacked a collaborative interagency mechanism with Treasury to address ongoing FATCA implementation issues related to access to foreign financial services and denial of employment and promotion opportunities overseas. Treasury is responsible for leading efforts to establish such a mechanism; however, State's participation in such a mechanism on a continuing basis will help agencies address remaining issues Americans living abroad experience from FATCA.
Social Security Administration The Commissioner of Social Security, in coordination with the Secretaries of State and Treasury, should establish a formal means to collaboratively address ongoing issues—including issues accessing financial services and employment and obtaining SSNs—that U.S. persons living abroad encounter from implementation of FATCA reporting requirements. (Recommendation 7)
Open
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has taken or plans to take steps to implement GAO's April 2019 recommendation. SSA worked with the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of State (State) to develop and post online frequently asked questions on how to obtain a Social Security number, renounce U.S. citizenship, and comply with U.S. tax obligations. Additionally, SSA planned outreach events with Federal Benefits Units in 2020, but canceled the events due to pandemic-related restrictions enacted by local authorities. However, as of March 2021, SSA lacked a collaborative interagency mechanism with Treasury and State to address ongoing FATCA implementation issues, such as recurring issues U.S. persons may have obtaining Social Security numbers. In addition, SSA said it has not engaged with Treasury or State since 2019. Treasury is responsible for leading efforts to establish such a collaborative mechanism to address ongoing FATCA implementation issues, and SSA said it would participate in such a mechanism if Treasury establishes it. SSA's participation in such a mechanism on a continuing basis will help agencies address remaining issues Americans living abroad experience from FATCA

Full Report

GAO Contacts