IRS goes after eBay sellers

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Monday, March 28, 2005

San Jose, California — As the April 15 deadline for U.S. private citizens to file their 2004 income tax returns draws near, the government is reminding sellers on eBay that they may have to report any proceeds from sales on the auction site as taxable income.

This could be a surprise to some of the 135 million registered eBay users who consider trading on San Jose-based auction site to be a non-taxable hobby. Complicating matters, eBay says it doesn't report individual sales figures to the government – users are responsible to report any profits on their own tax returns.

The amount of money traveling through eBay is big business. $33.8 billion worth of merchandise was sold on the site in 2004, up from $5.2 billion in 2000.

Although eBay pays taxes on its share of the sales (5.25 percent cut from each transaction as of Feb. 18), the IRS fears some small businesses are using the site to dodge tax responsibility. Adding to the confusion, some sellers may legally be a taxable business without realizing it.

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has a nine-point checklist it uses to determine whether or not a money-making activity is legally a business, which means money made is taxable, or a simple hobby – where it is not taxable. The IRS can consider a person to be a legal "business" even though they never incorporated or claimed to be one.

According to Woodbury, New York-based accountant Bart Fooden in an Associated Press interview, the IRS looks for such things as evidence that the auction seller depends on the eBay sales income to pay for activities other than maintaining the hobby, acts in a businesslike manner when selling on auctions or puts enough time and effort into the eBay activities that there is an obvious intent to make a profit.

But Fooden said in the same interview casual users probably have nothing to worry about. Those cleaning out closets or the garage and selling off junk for less than the original price paid are not turning a profit, so that money is not considered income and is not taxable.

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