The US government has ordered online auctioneer eBay’s payment service PayPal to turn over records that could expose foreign accounts where tax cheats have hidden money, PayPal said on Wednesday.
The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants the San Jose, California-based "online wallet" to reveal the details of accounts linked to banks or credit cards in 35 countries, said Amanda Pires of PayPal.
A summons issued by US District Court Judge James Ware in San Jose ordered PayPal to hand over records dating back to 1999, when the Internet money-transfer service was launched, Pires said.
"We are evaluating our options," Pires said. "We haven’t decided what to do yet. We take the privacy of our customers’ information very seriously."
Tax collectors wanted records of transactions connected to countries where local laws could protect specious tax shelters from scrutiny by US officials.
The IRS investigation has been going on for several years and court orders for information have been served on credit card companies, but this is the first time the Internet company has been tapped for information, Pires said.
PayPal offers service in less than a third of the locations listed in the summons, according to the company. Those places were Anguilla, Costa Rica, Cypress, Hong Kong, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Singapore, Switzerland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Mann, Pires said.
There were more than 100 million PayPal accounts in service as of Wednesday, the company said.
The demand promised to heighten concerns of online privacy advocates that contend law enforcement officials see the Internet as a virtual gold mine of information about people’s lives and activities.