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Online Games Could Create Real Taxes

Admit it – ever since that first electronic game of solitaire, we’ve been hooked on computer games. The more competitive of us like to play against each other, and there are lots of online sites where we can compete for free or cash. My favorites include WorldWinner.com, Pogo.com, King.com and Games.com. These are places where you don’t get surprise viruses piggybacked on the software.

Generally, when playing games for money, all you do is spend – paying for the games. Even when you win, you “re-invest” the proceeds into more games. It’s the rare individual who walks away from online games with a net profit for the month.

Win or lose, U.S.-based online game companies are issuing a 1099-MISC based on your gross winnings. Since there is no real income, you wish they could net the wins and losses.

Unfortunately, as the law now stands, they can’t. And it’s not hard to generate wins worth several thousand dollars a month, even when your payments into the system are only $50 a session. Why? Each time you win a game, your gross winnings increase. You use your winnings to pay for the next game. If you’re good, that $50 might last a week or even a month. By the end of the day, the week, the month, you will have no money. But you may have reinvested your winnings to the tune of several thousand dollars for that period of play.

So, how should we treat this income? Is this the same thing as online gambling?

No. Online gamblers believe they can actually win money. Some people net thousands of dollars a year – at least for a while. Gamers are under no such illusion – but we play for the sheer joy of competition. Sounds like a hobby to me.

How does that work on your tax return? Losses from hobbies are not treated like gambling losses.  You report the winnings on the 1099 as “Other income.” Your losses are reported as itemized deductions. The deductible losses are limited to the total winnings. Then, they are reduced by 2% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Folks who don’t have enough overall expenses to itemize, don’t get to use their losses at all. Gambling losses don’t get reduced by that extra 2%.

I ran computations for kids who are dependents on their parents’ tax returns, with no other income. Looking at a variety of winning amounts, there was no instance that generated a tax liability, as long as the tax return was prepared properly.

However, taxes were generated for folks who have wages or other sources of income. Consider a single person with $30,000 in wages. His or her federal tax liability is about $2,000. Add $20,000 in gaming wins, and the taxes soar to more than $3,600.

The amount is a lot lower for someone on Social Security with the same income and losses. Individuals receiving Social Security pay no taxes on those benefits as long as their total income, including half the Social Security benefits is less than $25,000 ($32,000 for couples filing jointly).

Without the 1099, they have no tax liability. The gaming income increases their AGI, and some of their Social Security benefits become taxable. End result, over $200 in taxes. It’s not huge. But with a lot of free time, those phantom winnings can add up.

In both cases, some of the taxes can be reduced by using itemized deductions, which would have been absorbed by their standard deductions. Look for things like state taxes, vehicle registrations, donations and job-related expenses.

If taxes are going to become a factor, perhaps it’s wise to monitor those gross winnings – and play for a while on those free sites.

Readers, have you been hit with these gaming 1099s?

Eva Rosenberg, EA, is the publisher of TaxMama.com. Rosenberg is the author of several books, including the newest edition of “Small Business Taxes Made Easy.” She also teaches a tax-pro course at IRSExams.com.

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      Of the 50 people I spoke to (mostly college and high school students) at Madison Square Garden,not one of them was familiar with the Letter from Birmingham Jail. I know what you are thinking: "Thank heaven Alona had a copy!"
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      Every year on Martin Luther King Day I read Letter From Birmingham Jail. I imagine Dr. King sitting in his jail cell, selecting each word carefully and neatly writing them in the margins of the newspapers and scrap papers, which bestowed the letter’s original form.
      The Letter was written April 16, 1963, in response to his arrest for conducting a non-violent protest against racial segregation by Birmingham’s city government and retailers who refused to take down the ‘Whites’ signs.
      Last year, I went to a Knicks game to celebrate MLK with my I HAVE A DREAM tee and about thirty copies of Letter From Birmingham Jail to give out. Of the fifty people I spoke to (mostly college and high school students) at Madison Square Garden, not one of them was familiar with the Letter from Birmingham Jail. I know what you are thinking: “Thank heaven Alona had a copy!”
      Thank you Dr. King.
      In his honor, below is one of my favorite excerpts:
      We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
      We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
      Full letter can be read here.
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      Owen Scott III
      39 Fans
      04:39 PM on 01/16/2012
      Byron Williams wrote a beautiful piece about this in Huffpost back in 2008. This led me to read the letter, one of the most profound statements of the struggle for peace and justice I’ve ever read.
      huffingtonpost.com/byron-williams/jamal-mlk-and-me_b_96047.html
      Owen_Scott_III: Byron Williams wrote a beautiful piece about this in Huffpost
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      Alona Elkayam
      88 Fans
      08:55 AM on 01/17/2012
      Thanks for sharing Owen and thanks for the Twitter follow!
      Alona_Elkayam: Thanks for sharing Owen and thanks for the Twitter follow!
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      Owen Scott III
      39 Fans
      03:51 PM on 01/17/2012
      Looking forward to following you, Alona. I don’t tweet much but I enjoy keeping up with what interesting people are doing.
      Owen_Scott_III: Looking forward to following you, Alona. I don’t tweet much
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      David Crowley
      584 Fans
      11:22 AM on 01/16/2012
      Yes, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail is powerful and should be read right up there with “I have a dream.” I’d shared the link a few times this morning, too. Scary not more people are familiar with it.
      David_Crowley: Yes, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail is powerful and
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      Alona Elkayam
      88 Fans
      12:35 PM on 01/16/2012
      Thank you David. I can’t write enough about what this letter means to me. Humanity is above law.
      Alona_Elkayam: Thank you David. I can’t write enough about what this
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    • I wonder how this would apply to the recent influx of internet swwepstakes cafes. Right now if you win $600+ you are given a 1099 regardless of whether they have the funding for you to redeem and you sit and spend it all back.

    • H: “you seem to be suggesting that a lrgear safety net has no cost,” I am not making that argument – I am pointing out that Lucas refers to slower European growth rates in support of his argument, when in fact the data shows that there European growth rates are not, in fact, slower. Lucas does not seem to describe any other “cost” other than slower growth rates, but the data don’t show such slower growth rates. My point is that Lucas’ argument in unsupported.—@ SPREWELL: “what is it about Europe or Japan’s native institutions that they simply can’t hit US levels of GDP per capita or innovation? I think you will find it tough to argue that a preference for leisure explains those gaps away.”Totally agree. I just don’t think Lucas has made any credible, evidence-based showing that the GDP difference is entirely due to social safety net spending. Which is his entire argument.—@ METHINKS: you sure you want to use Germany as an example of a bad economic story? 2010: 3.6% GDP growth, 6% unemployment, $44,700 GDP per capita. About the same as Wisconsin, Oregon and Rhode Island. The Horror!—@ MORGANIVICH: “this has been the weakest recovery from a recession since ww2.” This Great Recession (or lesser depression) is unlike any other recession since ww2. It is the largest financial / balance sheet recession since 1930, which Rogoff and Reinhart show alway lead to very slow, below-normal recoveries. Are you arguing the increased unemployment comp has caused this weak recovery, and not de-leveraging from historical leverage leading to weak end demand? Really?—As an aside, a blog forum does not seem to be the best way to keep up a back and forth discussion. Threaded comment systems are much better.

About The Tax Blog

  • The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (SmartMoney.com), retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at thetaxblog@dowjones.com.

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