This past fall, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen admitted to the Finance Committee of the United States Senate that the IRS is tracking cell-phones. Apparently the IRS is using “stingrays”, also known as IMSI catchers or cell-site simulators, to sweep up the cell-phone signals of unsuspecting taxpayers. Recently, the IRS spent $71,000 to upgrade their cell-phone tracking equipment. Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Connecticut demanded an explanation for the use of such equipment expressing their privacy concerns with such surveillance in a letter to Treasury Secretary, Jacob Lew. “The devices indiscriminately gather information about the cell phones of innocent people who are simply in the vicinity of the device,” the letter stated.

Koskinen told the Committee that the devices are not used in civil investigations, only criminal investigations. The letter also referred to a failure of consistency in the way governmental agencies use such devices. “[W]e have previously expressed concerns about the privacy implications of these devices, as well as the inconsistent practices and policies across the federal, state and local agencies that employ them.” Koskinen claimed that the activity follows Justice Department rules and requires a court order.

The ACLU has identified 58 governmental agencies in 23 states and D.C. that employ stingrays. Such devices mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to deceive cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and other identifying information. As mentioned previously, such invasive cell-phone surveillance devices not only track a suspect’s cell phone, but also gather information from the phones of innocents bystanders who are within range of the equipment’s target area.

In United States v. Rigmaiden, 844 F.Supp.2d 982 (D. Ariz. 2012), the defendant was charged with  various tax and wire fraud crimes. Federal agents applied for an order requesting the court to order Verizon to help the agents pinpoint the physical location of a wireless broadband access card and cell phone that they believed Rigmaiden was using in the hope of determining his precise location within an apartment complex, The order is clearly directed towards Verizon and reads as follows:

“The Court therefore ORDERS, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b); Title 18, United States Code, Sections 2703 and 3117; and Title 28, United States Code, Section 1651, that Verizon Wireless, within ten (10) days of the signing of this Order and for a period not to exceed 30 days, unless extended by the Court, shall provide to agents of the FBI data and information obtained from the monitoring of transmissions related to the location of the Target Broadband Access Card/Cellular Telephone…”

However, not only did the IRS obtain information from Verizon, it used stingrays to track Rigmaiden even though the use of such is not found authorized anywhere in the order. The court denied Rigmaiden’s motion to suppress all of the government’s digital data evidence mainly on the basis that he showed no expectation of privacy in the access card nor proved any violation of his 4th amendment rights.

Following Koskinen’s admission, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress prohibiting government agencies from using cell-site simulators (or stingrays) without a warrant in most circumstances. Known as the Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2015 or Stingray Privacy Act, it would also expressly exclude stingrays from 18 U.S.C. § 3127 (the pen register statute) currently used by law enforcement to conduct stingray operations without probable cause. The government would still be able to conduct warrantless stingray operations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or in emergencies.

If you have questions about whether an activity undertaken by the IRS against you is legal, call the tax attorneys and CPAs at the Thorgood Law Firm For FREE consultation call 212-490-0704.IS THE IRS TRACKING YOUR CELL PHONE CALLS? IT LOOKS LIKE IT…

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