Stimulus Check: IRS Mistake Sends Checks to Foreign Workers Who Are Rushing to Spend Them

Thousands of foreign workers have reportedly received coronavirus stimulus checks in another mistake made by the IRS. Some college-age workers who were in the U.S. during part of the past two years, but left the country before the coronavirus pandemic, have received the $1,200 checks intended to help Americans during the crisis. Some have tried to spend it as quickly as possible before the IRS comes up with a plan to get the money back, reports Politico.

Donna Kepley, president of the tax firm Arctic International, told Politico she spoke with dozens of clients in the past two weeks and many received the stimulus checks by mistake. She said the issue might be caused simply by a common mistake for those with F-1 student and J-1 exchange visas. They often use TurboTax or other easy e-filing systems without realizing they are only for U.S. residents. The IRS often does not catch these mistakes because non-immigrant workers have Social Security numbers with the same number of digits as a standard U.S. citizen Social Security number, accounts said.

The error is usually something the IRS does not have to worry about, but it means the IRS is automatically sending some foreign workers stimulus payments, Politico notes. Accountants who handle nonresident taxes said they have been flooded with calls about mistaken payments. Three student visa holders told Politico they got payments in April but could not contact the IRS. They fear the government could accuse them of tax fraud.

"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 explained. "And so we had to try to figure out how to return it, which is not easy."

The first stimulus checks were sent out in the middle of April as part of the CARES Act signed by President Donald Trump in March to help Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. Since the IRS began direct depositing and sending out physical checks, there have been several glitches, including reports of deceased Americans receiving checks. In another strange case, a British national received $1,200 from the IRS on April 15.

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The woman, identified as Elizabeth B., worked in New York on an E-2 investor visa and had a Social Security number. She paid taxes and earned $13,000 over just a few months in 2018 before she moved back to the U.K. If she stayed in the U.S., her annual salary would have been far above the $99,000 individual cap for payments.

"I was totally shocked," Elizabeth told The Washington Post. "I never for a minute thought it was a possibility that I would get this money. I’m a rich foreigner getting American money. I don’t deserve this money. There are so many people in America who need it. I appreciate that the IRS had to get the money out fast so they couldn’t do thorough checks. But it just feels so wrong to have it in my account."