READY, FIRE, AIM....
Now this, from Politico.com. In all fairness, it's tough to roll out a program that's never been done before, and do it quickly.
IRS mistakenly sends stimulus checks to foreign workers
With no clear guidance on how to return it, foreign workers are holding onto the money or racing to spend it before the Internal Revenue Service realizes the mistake. By IAN KULLGREN 05/01/2020 01:23 PM EDT Updated: 05/01/2020 03:14 PM EDT Thousands of foreign workers, many living overseas, are receiving stimulus checks designated for U.S. residents due to an unforeseen glitch that funneled taxpayer dollars to other countries, according to tax consultants and the recipients themselves. College-age workers who spent time in the U.S. in the last two years — some of whom returned home long before the coronavirus pandemic — have been surprised to find $1,200 checks deposited into their bank accounts. And with no clear guidance on how to return it, they’re holding onto the money or racing to spend it before the Internal Revenue Service realizes the mistake. The incorrect payments were likely distributed to thousands of foreigners in April, said Donna Kepley, president of the tax firm Arctic International who has spoken with dozens of clients over the past two weeks. The error stems from a common tax-filing blunder, particularly for those on F-1 student and J-1 exchange visas. These workers, studying at universities and working summer jobs, often turn to TurboTax and other e-filing systems without knowing that the systems are designed only for U.S. residents.
As a result, many temporary foreign workers each year file the wrong tax forms. The IRS rarely catches the error because nonimmigrant workers’ Social Security numbers have the same number of digits as those of U.S. citizens, and therefore appear to be identical, accountants say.
Usually, the error doesn’t much matter, but this year it’s causing the IRS to think certain foreign workers are eligible for one-time stimulus payments. The glitch affects both workers in the U.S. and those who recently left the country. The IRS and TurboTax did not respond to multiple requests for comment. There were 1.1 million foreign students in the U.S. last year, according to the Institute of International Education, and the government granted nearly 400,000 J-1 temporary visas. Accountants with expertise in nonresident taxes say the majority of these workers either don’t file or file incorrectly, and in recent days they’ve been flooded with calls about mistaken payments.
“We were contacted by a lot of our clients all of a sudden, on the one day when they started hitting their accounts or that the checks started going out, asking what to do,” Kepley said. “And so we had to try to figure out how to return it, which is not easy.” Three student visa holders who spoke to POLITICO said they had received the payments this month but had been unable to contact the IRS. All of them were motivated to return the money out of fear they would be banned from receiving visas in the future — or worse, deported — if the government learned they had committed tax fraud. “One day I just saw my account and I had 1,200 bucks without even requesting anything,” said a French citizen who completed a graduate program at University of Toledo in 2018. “I knew they were planning to give stimulus payments but I didn’t know when it was happening.” The student left the U.S. in January 2019 and now lives in Zurich. After scouring online forums to see if others were having the same problem, the student learned that he had filed the wrong form — 1040 instead of 1040-NR — through TurboTax. The IRS, believing him to be a U.S. resident or citizen, deposited the money into his account on April 15. The same week, the student said he called and emailed the IRS at least three times but never got through.
“I never tried to commit fraud or anything,” the student said. “I contacted the IRS to tell them that I’m not in the U.S. anymore and that I should not have received this stimulus check and I wanted to find a way to give the money back.”
“I don’t really want to use that money because it doesn’t really belong to me,” he added. In an email, a University of Toledo spokesperson said the university recently gave additional information to students on how they could file an amended tax return to send back their stimulus checks.
The problem is common among universities. In a survey of more than 500 schools last week, 43 percent said they had students and scholars who believed they received a payment in error.
“There are so many people who aren’t getting the check who could use it, and so when you see people who weren’t intended it’s disconcerting,” said Enda Kelleher, vice president for Sprintax, the tax firm that conducted the survey. The consequences of misfiling go beyond stimulus repayment. Nonimmigrant workers who claim to be residents also receive the $12,200 standard deduction. That prompts some students and workers to submit the wrong form intentionally, not understanding that it could jeopardize their immigration status and require them to pay penalties to the government. “They don’t think they’ll necessarily ever be caught or they don’t think there’s really that big a problem,” said Kepley, the Arctic International president.
But many others were caught off guard. Robert Zheng, a student from Chinawho recently graduated from University of Rochester in New York state, discovered $1,200 in his bank account last week, deposited after a friend told him that she had wrongly received the check. Zheng, who has a finance job in New York, said he combed the IRS website and online forums to find out how to return the check. But he still does not know how he will do it. A student from New Zealand studying at a Pennsylvania university said she frantically called her bank when she realized she got the stimulus check to see if she could send it back — and was told, incorrectly, that she should just spend it.
Skeptical of the advice, she called the IRS but was directed to an automated line. “I’m definitely worried that it’s either going to affect my status now or affect it if I ever try to apply for a different visa in the future,” the student said. But for the time being, she and others who received wrong payments have little to do but wait. “It’s in my savings account right now,” she added. “If it sits there for awhile at least I’ll get a couple dollars from it."