HMRC stay silent over eBay stings
Last month the HMRC announced they'd be focusing their attention on eBay and other online marketplaces; specifically, they said they had the means to find tax evaders by monitoring websites with “web robot” software that used targeted information about specified people and companies.
We wondered out loud how are HMRC could possibly go about matching eBay usernames to Self Assessment records, since HMRC themselves stated categorically that they were not obtaining any personal details directly from eBay. Was it some elaborate ruse to frighten taxes out of the public? Not according to the spokesperson Bitterwallet talked to. They didn't like us very much when we suggested that, or when we queried whether they were acquiring personal details in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Specifically, their exact words were that it was a “ridiculous” suggestion and such speculation would make HMRC “animated and annoyed”. In fact it would make them “extraordinarily annoyed”. They then threatened to set their lawyers on us.
That's where avid Bitterwallet reader Donald took up the story, when he submitted a Freedom of Information request to HMRC:
Please could you provide details of exactly how information identifying users is linked to self assessment records, if they are not being provided by e-marketplaces? I do not sell on any e-marketplaces, however I am concerned that there could be a breach of the data protection act during this process.
I am interested in how a "web robot" could possibly link users of an e-marketplace to their tax self-assessment records on the connect system, using only public information with no additional information provided by the
e-marketplace websites in question.
Unfortunately, the Freedom of Information Act stipulates that organisations can refuse to provide information that may be considered commercially sensitive or against public interest - and so HMRC refused to answer the question:
Whilst it is in the public interest to be open and accountable for the relevance, robustness and value for money aspects of our systems, and to assist compliance by helping the public understand the effect that HMRC's law enforcement activities can have, we also need to consider the operational sensitivities involved... it is likely that some harm would occur to the revenue if we were to reveal too much detail. Criminals are known to research our capabilities in order to make concerted attacks on the revenue.
So we're still none the wiser: as Stuart suggests, the most likely way HMRC could catch individuals on eBay is by making a test purchase by requesting the user's details from eBay or PayPal.