Posts Tagged: FAFSA


22
May 17

Private Eye Allegedly Used Leaky Goverment Tool in Bid to Find Tax Data on Trump

In March 2017, KrebsOnSecurity warned that thieves who perpetrate tax refund fraud with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service were leveraging a widely-used online student loan tool to find critical data on consumers that allows them to claim huge refunds with the IRS in someone else’s name. This week, it emerged that a Louisiana-based private investigator is being charged with using the same online tool to glean tax data on then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

A story today at Diverseeducation.com points to court filings in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, in which local private eye Jordan Hamlett is accused by federal prosecutors of abusing an automated tool at the U.S. Department of Education website that is designed to make it easier for families to complete the Education Department’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — a lengthy form that serves as the starting point for students seeking federal financial assistance to pay for college or career school.

Grand jury findings in a sealed case against Louisiana private investigator Jordan Hamlett.

Grand jury findings in a sealed case against Louisiana private investigator Jordan Hamlett.

In November 2016, Hamlett — the owner of Baton Rouge-based Averlock Investigations — was indicted on felony charges of trying to glean then President-Elect Trump’s “adjusted gross income,” or AGI, using the FAFSA online tool. In the United States, the AGI is an individual’s total gross income minus specific deductions. Diverse Education’s Jamaal Abdul-Alim cites sources saying the accused may have been trying to get Trump’s tax records.

In any event, he failed, according to prosecutors. Last month, the IRS announced that the Education Department was disabling the FAFSA lookup tool because it was being abused by tax fraudsters.

According to Diverse Education, hints about the case against Hamlett came out earlier this month in an IRS oversight hearing before the U.S. House committee on oversight and government reform. At that hearing, “Timothy P. Camus, deputy inspector general for investigations at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, alluded to the Hamlett case but did not mention Hamlett by name, nor did he indicate that then-presidential candidate Trump was the target,” Abdul-Alim writes. “Instead, Camus only mentioned that TIGTA ‘detected an attempted access to the AGI of a prominent individual.'”

Attempts to reach Hamlett for comment have been unsuccessful so far, and the complaint against him remains sealed. However, KrebsOnSecurity obtained a response on Nov. 10, 2016 from U.S. Attorney J. Walter Green that lays out the basic facts in the case. A copy of that document is here (PDF).

It’s interesting to note that this wasn’t the only time U.S. government authorities detected someone trying to access Trump’s AGI information. According to the government’s response, the alleged unauthorized attempt at Trump’s AGI data being attributed to Hamlett occurred on Sept. 13, 2016.

In TIGTA Deputy Inspector General Camus’ testimony to the House committee (PDF), he said his office detected a second attempt to access the same “prominent individual’s” AGI data via the FAFSA online lookup in November 2016, although the testimony doesn’t say whether that attempt was successful.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until an IRS employee on February 27, 2017 complained that his personal data was stolen via the FAFSA tool that the IRS moved to restrict online access to the service, according to response to committee questioning from IRS Chief Information Officer S. Gina Garza. Continue reading →


21
Mar 17

Student Aid Tool Held Key for Tax Fraudsters

Citing concerns over criminal activity and fraud, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has disabled an automated tool on its Web site that was used to help students and their families apply for federal financial aid. The removal of the tool has created unexpected hurdles for many families hoping to qualify for financial aid, but the action also eliminated a key source of data that fraudsters could use to conduct tax refund fraud.

Last week, the IRS and the Department of Education said in a joint statement that they were temporarily shutting down the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool. The service was designed to make it easier to complete the Education Department’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — a lengthy form that serves as the starting point for students seeking federal financial assistance to pay for college or career school.

The U.S. Department of Education's FAFSA federal student aid portal. A notice about the closure of the IRS's data retrieval tool can be seen in red at the bottom right of this image.

The U.S. Department of Education’s FAFSA federal student aid portal. A notice about the closure of the IRS’s data retrieval tool can be seen in red at the bottom right of this image.

In response to requests for comment, the IRS shared the following statement: “As part of a wider, ongoing effort at the IRS to protect the security of data, the IRS decided to temporarily suspend their Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) as a precautionary step following concerns that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves.”

“The scope of the issue is being explored, and the IRS and FSA are jointly investigating the issue,” the statement continued. “At this point, we believe the issue is relatively isolated, and no additional action is needed by taxpayers or people using these applications. The IRS and FSA are actively working on a way to further strengthen the security of information provided by the DRT. We will provide additional information when we have a specific timeframe for returning the DRT or other details to share.”

The removal of the IRS’s tool received relatively broad media coverage last week. For example, a story in The Wall Street Journal notes that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration — which provides independent oversight of the IRS — “opened a criminal investigation into the potentially fraudulent use of the tool.”

Nevertheless, I could not find a single publication that sought to explain precisely what information identity thieves were seeking from this now-defunct online resource. Two sources familiar with the matter but who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the record told KrebsOnSecurity that identity thieves were using the IRS’s tool to look up the “adjusted gross income” (AGI), which is an individual or family’s total gross income minus specific deductions.

Anyone completing a FAFSA application will need to enter the AGI as reported on the previous year’s income tax return of their parents or guardians. The AGI is listed on the IRS-1040 forms that taxpayers must file with the IRS each year. The IRS’s online tool was intended as a resource for students who needed to look up the AGI but didn’t have access to their parents’ tax returns.

Eligible FAFSA applicants could use the IRS’s data retrieval tool to populate relevant fields in the application with data pulled directly from the IRS. Countless college Web sites explain how the tool works in more detail; here’s one example (PDF).

As it happens, the AGI is also required to sign and validate electronic tax returns filed with the IRS. Consequently, the IRS’s data retrieval tool would be a terrific resource to help identity thieves successfully file fraudulent tax refund requests with the agency.

A notice from the IRS states that the adjusted gross income (AGI) is needed to validate electronically-filed tax returns.

A notice from the IRS states that the adjusted gross income (AGI) is needed to validate electronically-filed tax returns.

Continue reading →