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Internet Sales Tax: Are eBay Sellers Required to Pay Income Tax on Sales

Published 3/27/08 (Modified 6/17/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

I used to sell products on eBay as a money making hobby and even once attempted to make a side business out of it. It wasn't easy trying to make profit while at the same time avoiding all the internet fraud and scams out there. While I eventually decided to pursue other ventures, I had a friend who continued to dabble in eBay auctions. Soon enough, he had successfully turned what started out as a one room operation to an impressive one man eBay business machine that engulfed his entire basement. Everytime I stopped by his house I was always startled at the sheer number of brand new Dell laptop and ThinkPad boxes stacked in piles throughout his basement that overflowed into his unoccupied garage.

Through his closely guarded network of online connections (he never disclosed them to me), he was able to secure excellent wholesale deals on hot electronics like laptops, desktop computers, and handheld PDA's for sale on eBay. His racket continued for several years to my continued amazement as I wondered how he managed to stay so consistently profitable despite rising eBay fees and heavy online competition. One day I finally turned to him and asked him if he was reporting his eBay earnings as taxable income on his federal income tax. He simply smiled and changed the subject. Obviously, the answer was no, thus exposing the secret to his profitable eBay success - tax evasion!

Frankly I don't really blame him for withholding his eBay profits from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), although I wouldn't have done that myself. The subject of eBay tax enforcement has been murky for years, mostly due to the lack of proper paper trails and the undeveloped legal area of online auction income. However, the IRS has been recently making moves to crack down on eBay powersellers and auction proprietors to compel the reporting of all business profits. The IRS has also set its taxation efforts on other popular online auction sites like Amazon and UBid, as well as other online hobby market networks like Etsy. I suppose it was about time the almighty IRS dealt with the issue of online auctions.

The IRS Struggles To Compel eBay Sellers To Divulge Their Taxable Earnings

When it comes to reporting their sales income to the IRS, eBay sellers currently operate on the honor system. However, this honor system has resulted in a significant shortfall of under-reported and untaxed auction earnings. Currently, eBay does not report seller stats or submit sales records to the IRS unless it is honoring a subpoena request for information. Many amateur and aspiring eBay entrepreneurs have been able to work the eBay tax loophole for some time and avoid having to pay tax on their profits. It's a risky game of tax evasion roulette, but the lax enforcement has allowed it to persist for some time.

Recently, the federal government and the IRS has begun to put pressure on major online auction retailers like eBay to cough up user information and sales records, and has even introduced legislation to require market hubs to report personalized sales activity. Of particular taxation concern are the millions of auction sellers who consider eBay as their primary or secondary source of income but fail to accurately report their earnings. Obviously this effort is going to encounter much resistance from sellers and even the auction sites themselves since new tracking policies will undoubtedly result in higher tracking and record keeping costs. The prospect of requiring sites like eBay to track user information based on individual Social Security Number will obviously have the usual online privacy advocates up in arms.

While this taxation crackdown may bug a few eBay sellers, the requirement to report auction income and taxable business earnings is nothing new and has always been around. It's just only until recently that the IRS finally decided to work harder at plugging up the tax gap to stem tax evasion activities. Mandating the implementation of tools to enforce tax compliance already exists in most employment sectors and the IRS believes the new frontier of online auctions should be no exception.

When Do Proceeds From An eBay Auction Sale Have To Be Reported As Taxable Income?

From the amateur seller who considers eBay to be nothing more than a hobby, to the heavy traffic Powerseller who runs his or her operation as a profit generating business, no one really wants to spent the time to report earnings as income if he or she can help it. However, the IRS instructions make it clear that all sources of income can be taxed, which includes everything from online auction profits, and income from gambling activity, to even illegal "business operations" such as drug dealing and prostitution.

Even if the eBay seller makes a few sales here and there as a hobby, the IRS requires all income to be reported - this includes wages, salaries, tips, gambling winnings, money found on the floor, sweepstakes earnings, business income, and yes, eBay earnings (both hobby and business). The hobby or business nature of your eBay income only becomes an important factor when determining whether your eBay losses and operation costs may be used to offset your eBay income as a business deduction.

The correct question to ask regarding taxability is not necessarily the frequency or dollar amount of the transactions - but rather - did the eBay auction activity result in a net profit? For those who use eBay or other internet auction sites to sell old stuff that's been piling up in your garage, you probably don't have to worry about paying income taxes on the proceeds since the cost (the basis) usually exceeds the selling price. Under current tax law, an individual who sells an item online and collects more money than its original purchased value is expected to report that money as income on his or her tax return. Items whose original purchase basis value cannot be determined is typically valued at $0 under current tax law. Thus, it's advisable for all eBay sellers to get in the proper habit now of retaining their purchase and sales records. You never know when the IRS will flip the switch and go nuts with the eBay seller tax audits. It's only a matter of time.

Why Does It Matter If Your eBay Selling Is A Hobby Or A Business?

All eBay online auction sellers have a duty to report their earnings and to comply with tax law obligations to avoid an IRS audit. For most casual eBay hobby sellers who occasionally run the online equivalent of the garage or yard sale, they usually are not obligated to report their sales. That's because for most online garage or yard type sales, the items sold are usually personal household items purchased over the years and used. As such, the resulting selling prices are almost always lower than the original purchase basis price. The exception occurs when the item for sale has appreciated in value. Even if the transaction was intended to be a simple online yard sale, if the item being sold was something like a set of rare baseball cards that had appreciated in value in excess of the original purchase price, the resulting earnings must be reported as taxable income.

The hobby vs. business debate matters when it comes to self employment tax obligations and tax deduction benefits. If the eBay operation is properly regarded as a business, the taxpayer may be entitled to business deductions to write off operating costs. Whether the eBay seller will be treated as running a business will depend on his or her intent to generate profit. Activities such as visiting pawn shops for resale bargains like my friend used to do will likely be seen as demonstrating business intent. Furthermore, when the individual is running a business operation that results in regular profit sales, he or she may also be obligated to pay self assessed quarterly estimated tax payments through Form 1040-ES.

If you lose money pursuing a hobby, you cannot deduct your hobby loss from other income, but you can deduct your expenses up to the amount of your hobby income on your tax return. A hobby loss is a miscellaneous itemized tax deduction, and as such, only the total that exceeds 2% of the adjusted gross income may be deducted.

For more information regarding the differing IRS treatment of hobby and business related activity, check out the IRS explanation. The IRS also provides a good tax information resource for online auction sellers.

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