Posts Tagged: Federal Trade Commission


20
Nov 17

Fund Targets Victims Scammed Via Western Union

If you, a friend or loved one lost money in a scam involving Western Union, some or all of those funds may be recoverable thanks to a more than half-billion dollar program set up by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

In January 2017, Englewood, Colo.-based Western Union settled a case with the FTC and the Department of Justice wherein it admitted to multiple criminal violations, including willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and aiding and abetting wire fraud. As part of the settlement, the global money transfer business agreed to forfeit $586 million.

Last week, the FTC announced that individuals who lost money to scammers who told them to pay via Western Union’s money transfer system between January 1, 2004 and January 19, 2017 can now file a claim to get their money back by going to FTC.gov/WU before February 12, 2018.

Scammers tend to rely on money transfer businesses like Western Union and MoneyGram because once the money is sent and picked up by the recipient the transaction is generally irreversible. Such scams include transfers made for fraudulent lottery and prizesfamily emergenciesadvance-fee loans, and online dating, among others. Continue reading →


29
Aug 17

Beware of Hurricane Harvey Relief Scams

U.S. federal agencies are warning citizens anxious to donate money for those victimized by Hurricane Harvey to be especially wary of scam artists. In years past we’ve seen shameless fraudsters stand up fake charities and other bogus relief efforts in a bid to capitalize on public concern over an ongoing disaster. Here are some tips to help ensure sure your aid dollars go directly to those most in need.

charityscamThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an alert Monday urging consumers to be on the lookout for a potential surge in charity scams. The FTC advises those who wish to donate to stick to charities they know, and to be on the lookout for charities or relief Web sites that seem to have sprung up overnight in response to current events (such as houstonfloodrelief.net, registered on Aug. 28, 2017). Sometimes these sites are set up by well-meaning people with the best of intentions (however misguided), but it’s best not to take a chance.

The FTC also warns consumers not to assume that a charity message posted on social media is a legitimate, and urges folks to research the organization before donating by visiting charity evaluation sites such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, GuideStar, or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. The agency also reminds people who wish to donate via text message to confirm the number with the source before you donate.

From the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) comes a reminder that malware purveyors frequently use natural disasters and other breaking news items of broad interest to trick people into clicking on malicious links or opening booby-trapped email attachments.

If anyone spots additional recently-registered Harvey-themed relief domains, please drop a note in the comments below.

Update, 11:42 p.m. ET: A reader pointed out a newly-registered domain — harveyfloodrelief[dot]org — that is currently requesting PayPal donations on behalf of Harvey victims.


25
Jun 17

Got Robocalled? Don’t Get Mad; Get Busy.

Several times a week my cell phone receives the telephonic equivalent of spam: A robocall. On each occasion the call seems to come from a local number, but when I answer there is that telltale pause followed by an automated voice pitching some product or service. So when I heard from a reader who chose to hang on the line and see where one of these robocalls led him, I decided to dig deeper. This is the story of that investigation. Hopefully, it will inspire readers to do their own digging and help bury this annoying and intrusive practice.

robocallThe reader — Cedric (he asked to keep his last name out of this story) had grown increasingly aggravated with the calls as well, until one day he opted to play along by telling a white lie to the automated voice response system that called him: Yes, he said, yes he definitely was interested in credit repair services.

“I lied about my name and played like I needed credit repair to buy a home,” Cedric said. “I eventually wound up speaking with a representative at creditfix.com.”

The number that called Cedric — 314-754-0123 — was not in service when Cedric tried it back, suggesting it had been spoofed to make it look like it was coming from his local area. However, pivoting off of creditfix.com opened up some useful avenues of investigation.

Creditfix is hosted on a server at the Internet address 208.95.62.8. According to records maintained by Farsight Security — a company that tracks which Internet addresses correspond to which domain names — that server hosts or recently hosted dozens of other Web sites (the full list is here).

Most of these domains appear tied to various credit repair services owned or run by a guy named Michael LaSala and registered to a mail drop in Las Vegas. Looking closer at who owns the 208.95.62.8 address, we find it is registered to System Admin, LLC, a Florida company that lists LaSala as a manager, according to a lookup at the Florida Secretary of State’s office.

An Internet search for the company’s address turns up a filing by System Admin LLC with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That filing shows that the CEO of System Admin is Martin Toha, an entrepreneur probably best known for founding voip.com, a voice-over-IP (VOIP) service that allows customers to make telephone calls over the Internet.

Emails to the contact address at Creditfix.com elicited a response from a Sean in Creditfix’s compliance department. Sean told KrebsOnSecurity that mine was the second complaint his company had received about robocalls. Sean said he was convinced that his employer was scammed by a lead generation company that is using robocalls to quickly and illegally gin up referrals, which generate commissions for the lead generation firm.

Creditfix said the robocall leads it received appear to have been referred by Little Brook Media, a marketing firm in New York City. Little Brook Media did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Robocalls are permitted for political candidates, but beyond that if the recording is a sales message and you haven’t given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), companies are using auto-dialers to send out thousands of phone calls every minute for an incredibly low cost. Continue reading →


31
Jan 17

Shopping for W2s, Tax Data on the Dark Web

The 2016 tax season is now in full swing in the United States, which means scammers are once again assembling vast dossiers of personal data and preparing to file fraudulent tax refund requests on behalf of millions of Americans. But for those lazy identity thieves who can’t be bothered to phish or steal the needed data, there is now another option: Buying stolen W-2 tax forms from other crooks who have phished the documents wholesale from corporations.

A cybercriminal shop selling 2016 W-2 tax data.

A cybercriminal shop selling 2016 W-2 tax data.

Pictured in the screenshot above is a cybercriminal shop which sells the usual goods — stolen credit card data, PayPal account logins, and access to hacked computers. But hidden beneath the “other” category of goods for sale by this fraud bazaar is an option I’ve not previously encountered on these ubiquitous, cookie-cutter stores: A menu item advertising “W-2 2016.”

This particular shop — the name of which is being withheld so as not to provide it with free advertising — currently includes raw W-2 tax form data on more than 3,600 Americans, virtually all of whom apparently reside in Florida. The data in each record includes the taxpayer’s employer name, employer ID, address, taxpayer address, Social Security number and information about 2016 wages and taxes withheld.

Each W-2 record costs the Bitcoin equivalent of between $4 and $20. W-2 records for employees with higher-than-average wages in the 2016 tax year cost more, ostensibly because thieves stand to reap a higher tax refund from those W-2’s if they successfully trick the Internal Revenue Service and/or the states into approving a fraudulent refund in the victim’s name.

Tax refund fraud affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of U.S. citizens annually. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually due a refund from the IRS.

Tax data can be phished directly from consumers via phony emails spoofing the IRS or employers. But more often, the information is stolen in bulk from employers. In a typical scenario, the thieves target people who work in HR and payroll departments at corporations, and spoof an email from a higher-up in the company asking for all employee W-2 data to be included in a single file and emailed immediately.

Incredibly, this scam tricks countless organizations into giving away all employee W-2 data directly to identity thieves who use it (or, in this case, sell it) for tax refund fraud. Earlier this month, solar panel maker Sunrun disclosed that a spear phishing attack exposed W-2 tax form data on more than 3,400 employees.

In this case, however, it does not appear the cybercrime shop obtained the W-2’s through phishing employers. It cost roughly $25 worth of Bitcoin to reveal the likely common thread among all 3,600+ Floridians being exploited by this shop: A local tax preparation firm that got hacked or phished. Continue reading →


4
Jan 17

The FTC’s Internet of Things (IoT) Challenge

One of the biggest cybersecurity stories of 2016 was the surge in online attacks caused by poorly-secured “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices such as Internet routers, security cameras, digital video recorders (DVRs) and smart appliances. Many readers here have commented with ideas about how to counter vulnerabilities caused by out-of-date software in IoT devices, so why not pitch your idea for money? Who knows, you could win up to $25,000 in a new contest put on by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Electronics giant LG said at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) today that all of its devices from now on will have Wi-Fi built in. Image: @Karissabe

Electronics giant LG said today at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that all of its appliances from now on will have Wi-Fi built in and be connected to the cloud. Image: Mashable

The FTC’s IoT Home Inspector Challenge is seeking ideas for a tool of some sort that would address the burgeoning IoT mess. The agency says it’s offering a cash prize of up to $25,000 for the best technical solution, with up to $3,000 available for as many as three honorable mention winner(s). Continue reading →


23
Aug 16

A Life or Death Case of Identity Theft?

Identity thieves have perfected a scam in which they impersonate existing customers at retail mobile phone stores, pay a small cash deposit on pricey new phones, and then charge the rest to the victim’s account. In most cases, switching on the new phones causes the victim account owner’s phone(s) to go dead. This is the story of a Pennsylvania man who allegedly died of a heart attack because his wife’s phone was switched off by ID thieves and she was temporarily unable to call for help.

On Feb. 20, 2016, James William Schwartz, 84, was going about his daily routine, which mainly consisted of caring for his wife, MaryLou. Mrs. Schwartz was suffering from the end stages of endometrial cancer and wasn’t physically mobile without assistance. When Mr. Schwartz began having a heart attack that day, MaryLou went to use her phone to call for help and discovered it was completely shut off.

Little did MaryLou know, but identity thieves had the day before entered a “premium authorized Verizon dealer” store in Florida and impersonated the Schwartzes. The thieves paid a $150 cash deposit to “upgrade” the elderly couple’s simple mobiles to new iPhone 6s devices, with the balance to be placed on the Schwartz’s account.

“Despite her severely disabled and elderly condition, MaryLou Schwartz was finally able to retrieve her husband’s cellular telephone using a mechanical arm,” reads a lawsuit (PDF) filed in Beaver County, Penn. on behalf of the Schwartz’s two daughters, alleging negligence by the Florida mobile phone store. “This monumental, determined and desperate endeavor to reach her husband’s working telephone took Mrs. Schwartz approximately forty minutes to achieve due to her condition. This vital delay in reaching emergency help proved to be fatal.”

By the time paramedics arrived, Mr. Schwartz was pronounced dead. MaryLou Schwartz died seventeen days later, on March 8, 2016. Incredibly, identity thieves would continue robbing the Schwartzes even after they were both deceased: According to the lawsuit, on April 14, 2016 the account of MaryLou Schwartz was again compromised and a tablet device was also fraudulently acquired in MaryLou’s name.

The Schwartz’s daughters say they didn’t learn about the fraud until after both parents passed away. According to them, they heard about it from the guy at a local Verizon reseller that noticed his longtime customers’ phones had been deactivated. That’s when they discovered that while their mother’s phone was inactive at the time of her father’s death, their father’s mobile had inexplicably been able to make but not receive phone calls. Continue reading →


6
Mar 16

Seagate Phish Exposes All Employee W-2’s

Email scam artists last week tricked an employee at data storage giant Seagate Technology into giving away W-2 tax documents on all current and past employees, KrebsOnSecurity has learned. W-2 forms contain employee Social Security numbers, salaries and other personal data, and are highly prized by thieves involved in filing phony tax refund requests with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the states.

Seagate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Image: Wikipedia

Seagate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Image: Wikipedia

According to Seagate, the scam struck on March 1, about a week after KrebsOnSecurity warned readers to be on the lookout for email phishing scams directed at finance and HR personnel that spoof a letter from the organization’s CEO requesting all employee W-2 forms.

KrebsOnSecurity first learned of this incident from a former Seagate employee who received a written notice from the company. Seagate spokesman Eric DeRitis confirmed that the notice was, unfortunately, all too real.

“On March 1, Seagate Technology learned that the 2015 W-2 tax form information for current and former U.S.-based employees was sent to an unauthorized third party in response to the phishing email scam,” DeRitis said. “The information was sent by an employee who believed the phishing email was a legitimate internal company request.” Continue reading →


26
Feb 16

IRS: 390K More Victims of IRS.Gov Weakness

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) today sharply revised previous estimates on the number of citizens that had their tax data stolen since 2014 thanks to a security weakness in the IRS’s own Web site. According to the IRS, at least 724,000 citizens had their personal and tax data stolen after crooks figured out how to abuse a (now defunct) IRS Web site feature called “Get Transcript” to steal victim’s prior tax data.

The Growing Tax Fraud MenaceThe number is more than double the figures the IRS released in August 2015, when it said some 334,000 taxpayers had their data stolen via authentication weaknesses in the agency’s Get Transcript feature.

Turns out, those August 2015 estimates were more than tripled from May 2015, when the IRS shut down its Get Transcript feature and announced it thought crooks had abused the Get Transcript feature to pull previous year’s tax data on just 110,000 citizens.

In a statement released today, the IRS said a more comprehensive, nine-month review of the Get Transcript feature since its inception in January 2014 identified the “potential access of approximately 390,000 additional taxpayer accounts during the period from January 2014 through May 2015.”

The IRS said an additional 295,000 taxpayer transcripts were targeted but access was not successful, and that mailings notifying these taxpayers will start February 29. The agency said it also is offering free credit monitoring through Equifax for affected consumers, and placing extra scrutiny on tax returns from citizens with affected SSNs.

The criminal Get Transcript requests fuel refund fraud, which involves crooks claiming a large refund in the name of someone else and intercepting the payment. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually due a refund from the IRS.

As I warned in March 2015, the flawed Get Transcript function at issue required taxpayers who wished to obtain a copy of their most recent tax transcript had to provide the IRS’s site with the following information: The applicant’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and filing status. After that data was successfully supplied, the IRS used a service from credit bureau Equifax that asks four so-called “knowledge-based authentication” (KBA) questions. Anyone who succeeds in supplying the correct answers could see the applicant’s full tax transcript, including prior W2s, current W2s and more or less everything one would need to fraudulently file for a tax refund.

These KBA questions — which involve multiple choice, “out of wallet” questions such as previous address, loan amounts and dates — can be successfully enumerated with random guessing. But in practice it is far easier, as we can see from the fact that thieves were successfully able to navigate the multiple questions more than half of the times they tried. The IRS said it identified some 1.3 million attempts to abuse the Get Transcript service since its inception in January 2014; in 724,000 of those cases the thieves succeeded in answering the KBA questions correctly.

The IRS’s answer to tax refund victims — the Identity Protection (IP) PIN — is just as flawed as the now defunct Get Transcript system. These IP PINS, which the IRS has already mailed to some 2.7 million tax ID theft victims, must be supplied on the following year’s tax application before the IRS will accept the return.

The only problem with this approach is that the IRS allows IP PIN recipients to retrieve their PIN via the agency’s Web site, after supplying the answers to the same type of KBA questions from Equifax that opened the Get Transcript feature to exploitation by fraudsters.  These KBA questions focus on things such as previous address, loan amounts and dates and can be successfully enumerated with random guessing.  In many cases, the answers can be found by consulting free online services, such as Zillow and Facebook.

ID thieves understand this all to well, and even a relatively unsophisticated gang engaged in this activity can make millions via tax refund fraud. Last week, a federal grand jury in Oregon unsealed indictments against three men accused of using the IRS’s Get Transcript feature to obtain 1,200 taxpayers transcripts. In total, the authorities allege the men filed over 2,900 false federal tax returns seeking over $25 million in fraudulent refunds.  The IRS says it rejected most of those claims, but that the gang managed to successfully obtain $4.7 million in illegal refunds.

Continue reading →


28
Jan 16

FTC: Tax Fraud Behind 47% Spike in ID Theft

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today said it tracked a nearly 50 percent increase in identity theft complaints in 2015, and that by far the biggest contributor to that spike was tax refund fraud. The announcement coincided with the debut of a beefed up FTC Web site aimed at making it easier for consumers to report and recover from all forms of ID theft.

In kicking off “Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week,” FTC released new stats showing that the agency received more than 490,000 identity theft complaints last year, a 47 percent increase over 2014. In a conference call with the news media, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez called tax refund fraud “the largest and fastest growing ID theft category” that the commission tracks.

Tax refund fraud contributed mightily to a big spike in ID theft complaints to the FTC in 2015. Image: FTC

Tax refund fraud contributed mightily to a big spike in ID theft complaints to the FTC in 2015. Image: FTC

Those numbers roughly coincide with data released by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which also shows a major increase in tax-related identity theft in 2015.

Incidence of tax-related ID theft as of Sept. 2015. Source: IRS.

Incidence of tax-related ID theft as of Sept. 2015. Source: IRS.

Ramirez was speaking to reporters to get the word out about the agency’s new and improved online resource, identitytheft.gov, which aims to streamline the process of reporting various forms of identity theft to the FTC, the IRS, the credit bureaus and to state and local officials.

“The upgraded site, which is mobile and tablet accessible, offers an array of easy-to-use tools, that enables identity theft victims to create the documents they need to alert police, the main credit bureaus and the IRS among others,” Ramirez said. “Identity theft victims can now go online and get a free, personalized identity theft recovery plan.”

Ramirez added that the agency’s site does not collect sensitive data — such as drivers license or Social Security numbers. The areas where that information is required are left blank in the forms that get produced when consumers finish stepping through the process of filing an ID theft complaint (consumers are instructed to “fill these items in by hand, after you print it out”).

The FTC chief also said the agency is working with the credit bureaus to further streamline the process of reporting fraud. She declined to be specific about what that might entail, but the new and improved identitytheft.gov site is still far from automated. For example, the “recovery plan” produced when consumers file a report merely lists the phone numbers and includes Web site links for the major credit bureaus that consumers can use to place fraud alerts or file a security freeze.

The "My Recovery Plan" produced when I filed a test report claiming the worst possible scenario of ID theft that I could think up. The FTC requests that consumers not file false reports (I had their PR person remove this entry after filing it).

The “My Recovery Plan” produced when I filed a test report claiming the worst possible scenario of ID theft that I could think up. The FTC kindly requests that consumers not file false reports (I had their PR person remove this entry after filing it).

Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see the FTC urging consumers to request a security freeze on their credit file, even if this was the last option listed on the recovery plan that I was issued and the agency’s site appears to do little to help consumers actually file security freezes.

I’m also glad to see the Commission’s site employ multi-factor authentication for consumers who wish to receive a recovery plan in addition to filing an ID theft report with the FTC. Those who request a plan are asked to provide an email address, pick a complex password, and input a one-time code that is sent via text message or automated phone call. Continue reading →


20
Jan 16

The Lowdown on Freezing Your Kid’s Credit

A story in a national news source earlier this month about freezing your child’s credit file to preempt ID thieves prompted many readers to erroneously conclude that all states allow this as of 2016. The truth is that some states let parents create a file for their child and then freeze it, while many states have no laws on the matter. Here’s a short primer on the current situation, with the availability of credit freezes (a.k.a “security freeze”) for minors by state and by credit bureau.

The lighter-colored states have some type of law permitting parents and/or guardians to place a freeze or flag on a dependent's credit file.

The lighter-colored states have laws permitting parents and/or guardians to place a freeze or flag on a dependent’s credit file.

A child’s Social Security number can be used by identity thieves to apply for government benefits, open bank and credit card accounts, apply for a loan or utility service, or rent a place to live. Why would ID thieves wish to assume a child’s identity? Because that child is (likely) a clean slate, which translates to plenty of available credit down the road. In addition, minors generally aren’t in the habit of checking their credit reports or even the existence of one, and most parents don’t find out about the crime until the child approaches the age of 18 (or well after).

A 2012 report on child identity theft from the Carnegie Mellon University CyLab delves into the problem of identity thieves targeting children for unused Social Security numbers. The study looked at identity theft protection scans done on some 40,000 children, and found that roughly 10 percent of them were victims of ID theft.

The Protect Children from Identity Theft Act, introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2015, would give parents and guardians the ability to create a protected, frozen credit file for their children. However, GovTrack currently gives the bill a two percent chance of passage in this Congress.

So for now, there is no federal law for minors regarding credit freezes. This has left it up to the states to establish their own policies.

Credit bureau Equifax offers a free service that will allow parents to create a credit report for a minor and freeze it regardless of the state requirement. The minor also does not have to be a victim of identity theft. Equifax has more information on this offering here.

Experian told me that company policy is not to create a file for a minor upon request unless mandated by state law. “However, if a file exists for the minor we will provide a copy free to the parent or legal guardian and will freeze it,” said Experian spokesperson Susan Henson.

Henson added that depending on state law, there may be a fee ranging from $3 to $10 associated with the minor’s freeze. However, if the minor is a victim of identity theft and the applicant submits a copy of a valid police or incident report or complaint with a law enforcement agency or the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the fee will be waived.

Trans Union has a form on its site that lets parents and guardians check for the presence of a credit file on their dependents. But it also only allows freezes in states that reserve that right for minors and their parents or guardians, and applicable fees may apply.

Innovis, often referred to as the fourth major consumer credit bureau, allows parents or guardians to place a freeze on their dependent’s file regardless of state laws. Continue reading →