Concern over government attempts to track Americans and monitor their communications have long simmered since the revelations that the U.S. government was engaging in blanket warrant-less wiretapping became public. These revelations seemed to be a confirmation of the privacy-conscious individual’s worst fear: the government is watching you and knows everyone you talk and associate with. Furthermore while the program only collects metadata, with a little bit of detective work, it is likely that a government agent could know exactly what you are discussing and when you have these conversations.
In light of allegations that the IRS targeted certain taxpayers and certain groups for unfair and perhaps discriminatory treatment, the news that the IRS has spying tools is not welcome. However, individuals who may have committed tax crimes such as tax fraud or tax evasion should be especially on-guard and aware that the IRS is using cellphone spying equipment to investigate those who commit tax fraud. Communications that you believed to be private, may end up supporting a government case against you.
What Type of Surveillance Software is the IRS Using?
According to Wired.com, the use of technology designed to spy on cellular communications stretches back at least two decades. A record from a 2009 Utah court proceeding contains testimony of an FBI agent claiming to have used the technology more than 300 times over the course of 10 years. Furthermore, Wired discussed the use of similar, more primitive devices in a 1996 article regarding federal efforts to track infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick. While details over the modern program have been sparse due to non-disclosure agreements and government stonewalling, a picture of the use of these devices is becoming increasingly clear.
The technology is known as a Stingray or IMSI catcher. The technology allows a law enforcement agent to spoof, or fake, a legitimate cellular tower. Cell phones and other mobile devices within the vicinity of the stingray device will then connect to the fake cell tower rather than connecting to a legitimate tower. The individual’s communications then pass through and are captured by the government device.
Is the IRS Using these Devices for Tax Enforcement Efforts?
The full extent of the IRS’s use of these devices is not yet clear. However, details have emerged which provides insight into at least some aspects of the IRS’s’ use of Stingrays. Invoices obtained by the Guardian make clear that the IRS has had these devices since, at least, 2009. The 2012 invoice for additional equipment from Harris Corporation shows that that the program was continued and perhaps even expanded after three years of operation. A Guardian interview with former IRS deputy commissioner Mark Matthews has indicated that IRS agents have been exposed to the use of these devices through joint efforts with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, he claims that IRS agents are permitted to file for PEN registers, a type of low-level court order needed to trace a phone call – or use a Stingray.
Perhaps Mr. Matthews allusion to IRS agents exposure to Stingray through the FBI is in reference to the investigation that resulted in the arrest of Daniel Ringmaiden and subsequent conviction for tax fraud. As described in a 2013 Wired.com article, agents with the FBI, IRS and US Postal Service worked in tandem with Verizon wireless to locate and reprogram a wireless card associated with a tax fraud scheme. The agents working with Verizon were able to locate the card, reprogram it to connect to the Stingray device, and monitor communications and reported locations from the device.
While it is unclear as to what end, if any, the IRS is deploying these devices to achieve, it is likely that any use of Stingray devices is narrow and targeted. If the technology is in use, it is likely being used in furtherance of the IRS’s’ already declared enforcement goals. For IRS criminal investigations those areas of focus include the use of foreign accounts and offshore trusts to commit tax fraud, corporate tax fraud, identity theft tac return schemes, and crimes prohibited by the bank Secrecy Act such as money laundering. Taxpayers who are concerned about past tax acts should consult with an experienced tax attorney immediately to discuss potential legal options to reduce the potential consequences faced.
Rely on Our Experience When Facing Tax Charges
If you are concerned about a possible tax crime, the IRS and law enforcement agencies have more tools than ever before to detect and prosecute those acts. Contact an experienced and dedicated tax attorney who can stand-up and protect your rights today. The Hoffman Law Offices are dedicated to protecting taxpayers facing serious tax allegations. To schedule a free and confidential legal consultation call 800-897-3915 or contact us online.
UPDATE: Senate Judiciary Committee leaders have announced that they are launching an inquiry into the IRS’ uses and potential uses of these Stingray devices. Senators Grassley and Leahy sent a letter to the IRS stating “We were surprised to learn that IRS investigators may be using these devices.” They are concerned about the privacy implications the use of these devices has on Americans. In recent Senate testimony, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen confirmed that the IRS was using the technology but claimed that, “It can only be used based on probable cause of criminal activity.” We will continue to monitor this important issue and provide updates for all taxpayers.