Many companies believe that if they protect their intellectual property and customers’ information, they’ve done a decent job of safeguarding their crown jewels from attackers. But in an increasingly common scheme, cybercriminals are targeting the Human Resources departments at compromised organizations and rapidly filing fraudulent federal tax returns on all employees.
Last month, KrebsOnSecurity encountered a Web-based control panel that an organized criminal gang has been using to track bogus tax returns filed on behalf of employees at hacked companies whose HR departments had been relieved of W2 forms for all employees.
According to the control panel seen by this reporter, the scammers in charge of this scheme have hacked more than a half-dozen U.S. companies, filing fake tax returns on nearly every employee. At last count, this particular scam appears to stretch back to the beginning of this year’s tax filing season, and includes fraudulent returns filed on behalf of thousands of people — totaling more than $1 million in bogus returns.
The control panel includes a menu listing every employee’s W2 form, including all data needed to successfully file a return, such as the employee’s Social Security number, address, wages and employer identification number. Each fake return was apparently filed using the e-filing service provided by H&R Block, a major tax preparation and filing company. H&R Block did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Fraudulent returns listed in the miscreants’ control panel that were successfully filed produced a specific five-digit tax filing Personal Identification Number (PIN) apparently generated by H&R Block’s online filing system. An examination of the panel suggests that successfully-filed returns are routed to prepaid American Express cards that are requested to be sent to addresses in the United States corresponding to specific “drops,” or co-conspirators in the scheme who have agreed to receive the prepaid cards and “cash out” the balance — minus their fee for processing the bogus returns.
Alex Holden, chief information security officer at Hold Security, said although tax fraud is nothing new, automating the exploitation of human resource systems for mass tax fraud is an innovation.
“The depth of this specific operation permits them to act as a malicious middle-man and tax preparation company to be an unwitting ‘underwriter’ of this crime,” Holden said. “And the victims maybe exploited not only for 2013 tax year but also down the road, and perhaps subject of higher scrutiny by IRS — not to mention potential financial losses. Companies should look at their human resource infrastructure to ensure that payroll, taxes, financial, medical, and other benefits are afforded the same level of protection as their other mission-critical assets.”
ULTIPRO USERS TARGETED
I spoke at length with Doug, a 45-year-old tax fraud victim at a company that was listed in the attacker’s control panel. Doug agreed to talk about his experience if I omitted his last name and his employer’s name from this story. Doug confirmed that the information in the attacker’s tax fraud panel was his and mostly correct, but he said he didn’t recognize the Gmail address used to fraudulently submit his taxes at H&R Block.
Doug said his employer recently sent out a company-wide email stating there had been a security breach at a cloud provider that was subcontracted to handle the company’s employee benefits and payroll systems.
“Our company sent out a blanket email saying there had been a security breach that included employee names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and other information, and that they were going to pay for a free year’s worth of credit monitoring,” Doug said.
Almost a week after that notification, the company sent out a second notice stating that the breach extended to the personal information of all spouses and children of its employees.
“We were later notified that the breach was much deeper than originally suspected, which included all of our beneficiaries, their personal information, my life insurance policy, 401-K stuff, and our taxes,” Doug said. “My sister-in-law is an accountant, so I raced to her and asked her to help us file our taxes immediately. She pushed them through quickly but the IRS came back and said someone had already filed our taxes a few days before us.”
Doug has since spent many hours filling out countless forms with a variety of organizations, including the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, the local police department, and of course the Internal Revenue Service.
Doug’s company and another victim at a separate company whose employees were all listed as recent tax fraud victims in the attacker’s online control panel both said their employers’ third-party cloud provider of payroll services was Weston, Fla.-based Ultimate Software. In each case, the attackers appear to have stolen the credentials of the victim organization’s human resources manager, credentials that were used to manage employee payroll and benefits at Ultipro, an online HR and payroll solutions provider.
Jody Kaminsky, senior vice president of marketing at Ultimate Software, said the company has no indication of a compromise of Ultimate’s security. Instead, she said Doug’s employer appears to have had its credentials stolen and abused by this fraud operation.
“Although we are aware that several customers’ employees were victims of tax fraud, we have no reason to believe this unauthorized access was the result of a compromise of our own security,” Kaminsky said. “Rather, our investigation suggests this is the result of stolen login information on the end-user level and not our application.”
“Unfortunately incidents of tax fraud this tax season across the U.S. are increasing and do not appear to be limited to just our customers or any one company (as I’m sure you’re well aware due to your close coverage of this issue). Over the past several weeks, we have communicated multiple times with our customers about recent threats of tax fraud and identity theft schemes.”
“We believe through schemes such as phishing or malware on end-user computers, criminals are attempting to obtain system login information and use those logins to access employee data for tax fraud purposes. We take identity theft schemes extremely seriously. As tax season progresses, we have been encouraging our customers to take steps to protect their systems such as enforcing frequent password resets and ensuring employee computers’ are up-to-date on anti-malware protection.”
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM TAX FRAUD
According to a 2013 report from the Treasury Inspector General’s office, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued nearly $4 billion in bogus tax refunds in 2012. The money largely was sent to people who stole Social Security numbers and other information on U.S. citizens, and then filed fraudulent tax returns on those individuals claiming a large refund but at a different address.
It’s important to note that fraudsters engaged in this type of crime are in no way singling out H&R Block or Ultipro. Cybercrooks in charge of large collections of hacked computers can just as easily siphon usernames and passwords — as well as incomplete returns — from taxpayers who are preparing returns via other online filing services, including TurboTax and TaxSlayer.
If you become the victim of identity theft outside of the tax system or believe you may be at risk due to a lost/stolen purse or wallet, questionable credit card activity or credit report, etc., you are encouraged to contact the IRS at the Identity Protection Specialized Unit, toll-free at 1-800-908-4490 so that the IRS can take steps to further secure your account.
That process is likely to involve the use of taxpayer-specific PINs for people that have had issues with identity theft. If approved, the PIN is required on any tax return filed for that consumer before a return can be accepted. To start the process of applying for a tax return PIN from the IRS, check out the steps at this link. You will almost certainly need to file an IRS form 14039 (PDF), and provide scanned or photocopied records, such a drivers license or passport.
The most frightening aspect of this tax crimeware panel is that its designers appear to have licensed it for resale. It’s not clear how much this particular automated fraud machine costs, but sources in the financial industry tell this reporter that this same Web interface has been implicated in multiple tax return scams targeting dozens of companies in this year’s tax-filing season.