updated 4:42 PM CET, Nov 23, 2020

News that Austrians received U.S. stimulus checks draws responses from expats, EU data protection law critic

A report published on Wednesday that said an unknown number of Austrian citizens who lacked U.S. citizenship or residency had received U.S. coronavirus stimulus checks has drawn an immediate and unambiguous response from expats who have yet to receive their money, as well as from one of the most outspoken critics of the EU's existing data protection regime.

The report about the Austrians receiving stimulus checks was originally published in The Washington Post and on its website, but was also picked up by such other media organizations as The Independent, The Hill, Business Insider, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune and The Week. 

The Washington Post and other media outlets quoted among their sources a German-language report carried on Sept.7 (Monday) by the Austrian public broadcaster ORF.  

In its story, the Post gave the example of an Austrian couple who had both received one of the so-called CARES Act Economic Impact Payments, worth US$1,200 each, even though "neither is a U.S. resident or holds U.S. citizenship," two key eligibility requirements.

The husband, 73-year-old pensioner Manfred Barnreiter, had "briefly worked in the United States in the 1960s and still receives a small pension from that period of employment", the Post added, quoting the ORF report.

"We quietly went to the bank... where we were told they'll see if it's real," the Post quoted Barnreiter as having told ORF. 

"Three days later, we had the money in our bank account." 

As reported here in May, there have been previous reports of "renounced Americans as well as foreign workers living overseas" getting the so-called CARES Act Economic Impact Payments, even though, controversially, many Americans who in theory should have been receiving them were being officially excluded because they had been filing their tax returns jointly with a non-American citizen spouse.

The Washington Post article also noted that NPR, the non-profit American media organization known for its more than 1,000 local U.S. radio stations, last month published (and broadcast) a story headlined "Foreign Workers Living Overseas Mistakenly Received $1,200 U.S. Stimulus Checks." 

Many of those non-Americans receiving the stimulus checks, the NPR report noted, were "college students, often from Eastern Europe and South and Central America, who travel to the United States for temporary and seasonal low-wage jobs such as waiters, lifeguards and hotel housekeepers at ski resorts, amusement parks and beach destinations.

The Washington Post said representatives of three local branches of banks operating in Austria said they had cashed about 200 U.S. stimulus checks by Wednesday of this week. But none of the banks, it added, "was able to say how many checks were cashed by Austrians [who were] likely to not be eligible for the U.S. government payments.

The IRS, it said, declined to respond on the record to a request for comment.  

Reaction

Less than 24 hours after The Washington Post published its version of the story on its website, it had received more than 650 online reader comments beneath it, many of which were from  exasperated, tax-paying American expatriates who had applied for the U.S. coronavirus stimulus payments they had understood they were entitled to, but which they had yet to receive.

"FWIW, I live in Germany and have still not received my stimulus check either," wrote one.

"I spent hours on the phone with IRS to find out why. The representative I spoke with said they had not received my 2018 or 19 tax returns, both of which I had filed.

"I checked with my accountant, who informed me that when they tried to do an electronic filing, it had been rejected and they had to send a paper filing. We have followed up both by fax and by paper, again, and still nothing.

"I'm not sure if I'll ever see a dime, don't know if it's the IRS or USPS holding things up, but am [getting] to the point that I wonder why I have to file every year if they aren't going to bother to process my returns."

Another, U.S.-resident individual, who had received just "one check for US$500" and whose "sister in Michigan was still waiting for her check," mused that the money they had been supposed to receive had been "sent to Austria or some other European country...

"Maybe they sent it to our old au pair." 

Questions about IRS
having Austrians' data

Filippo Noseda EU PETA hearing 2019 Thierry ROGEFor Filippo Noseda, the Mishcon de Reya partner who has been one of the most visible campaigners against the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), on the basis of the way that it obliges banks to forward the personal data of their account-holders to the U.S. – in violation, he contends, of EU data privacy regulations – the news that stimulus checks were being sent to non-Americans resident overseas was further proof that EU regulations needed to be overhauled. 

Which is roughly what he told European Data Protection Board(EDPB) chair Andrea Jelinek, in a letter emailed to her today, and copied to the Council of Europe as well as European Parliament Petiton Committee chair Dolors Montserrat, UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham, and European Commission data official Bruno Gencarelli. 

In his letter, Noseda, pictured left, who among other recent activites has been heading up  a UK data privacy challenge  to FATCA on behalf of a crowd-funded, UK resident, American-born woman known as "Jenny", asked Dr. Jelinek, "Why and how does the IRS hold personal data of Austrian citizens without U.S. connections", and accused the EDPB of "standing idly by".

"Our 42-pages-long Hacking and Data Breaches list contains hundreds of incidents of hacking and data breaches affecting tax authorities and financial institutions in the U.S. and Europe," Noseda went on.

"As part of our GDPR complaints, the UK tax authorities have admitted that these incidents are 'serious' and the Secretary-General of the OECD has admitted that there has already been at least one hacking incident concerning data transferred internationally under systems of automatic exchange of information.

"Would you now please deal with our request made ever since 3 April 2020?" 

Dr. Jelinek didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last month, many data protection experts in Europe, including Noseda, said the decision of the European Court of Justice to strike down the main mechanism used by the EU to protect the personal data of EU citizens when it's transferred to the U.S. represented a potential "game changer" in the way such data is handled. 

The decision was seen as potentially forcing Europe's courts to revisit FATCA, but also all manner of other ways personal data moves across the Atlantic from Europe. 

The many, and growing, numbers of cross-border personal information data hacks and breaches was seen contributing to the growing sense that the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), barely two years in force, could face fresh scrutiny, and potential change by EU regulators.