Posts Tagged: Federal Trade Commission


10
Sep 18

In a Few Days, Credit Freezes Will Be Fee-Free

Later this month, all of the three major consumer credit bureaus will be required to offer free credit freezes to all Americans and their dependents. Maybe you’ve been holding off freezing your credit file because your home state currently charges a fee for placing or thawing a credit freeze, or because you believe it’s just not worth the hassle. If that accurately describes your views on the matter, this post may well change your mind.

A credit freeze — also known as a “security freeze” — restricts access to your credit file, making it far more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.

Currently, many states allow the big three bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to charge a fee for placing or lifting a security freeze. But thanks to a federal law enacted earlier this year, after Sept. 21, 2018 it will be free to freeze and unfreeze your credit file and those of your children or dependents throughout the United States.

KrebsOnSecurity has for many years urged readers to freeze their files with the big three bureaus, as well as with a distant fourth — Innovis — and the NCTUE, an Equifax-operated credit checking clearinghouse relied upon by most of the major mobile phone providers.

There are dozens of private companies that specialize in providing consumer credit reports and scores to specific industries, including real estate brokers, landlords, insurers, debt buyers, employers, banks, casinos and retail stores. A handy PDF produced earlier this year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) lists all of the known entities that maintain, sell or share credit data on U.S. citizens.

The CFPB’s document includes links to Web sites for 46 different consumer credit reporting entities, along with information about your legal rights to obtain data in your reports and dispute suspected inaccuracies with the companies as needed. My guess is the vast majority of Americans have never heard of most of these companies.

Via numerous front-end Web sites, each of these mini credit bureaus serve thousands or tens of thousands of people who work in the above mentioned industries and who have the ability to pull credit and other personal data on Americans. In many cases, online access to look up data through these companies is secured by nothing more than a username and password that can be stolen or phished by cybercrooks and abused to pull privileged information on consumers.

In other cases, it’s trivial for anyone to sign up for these services. For example, how do companies that provide background screening and credit report data to landlords decide who can sign up as a landlord? Answer: Anyone can be a landlord (or pretend to be one).

SCORE ONE FOR FREEZES

The truly scary part? Access to some of these credit lookup services is supposed to be secured behind a login page, but often isn’t. Consider the service pictured below, which for $44 will let anyone look up the credit score of any American who hasn’t already frozen their credit files with the big three. Worse yet, you don’t even need to have accurate information on a target — such as their Social Security number or current address.

KrebsOnSecurity was made aware of this particular portal by Alex Holden, CEO of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based cybersecurity firm Hold Security LLC [full disclosure: This author is listed as an adviser to Hold Security, however this is and always has been a volunteer role for which I have not been compensated].

Holden’s wife Lisa is a mortgage broker, and as such she has access to a more full-featured version of the above-pictured consumer data lookup service (among others) for the purposes of helping clients determine a range of mortgage rates available. Mrs. Holden said the version of this service that she has access to will return accurate, current and complete credit file information on consumers even if one enters a made-up SSN and old address on an individual who hasn’t yet frozen their credit files with the big three.

“I’ve noticed in the past when I do a hard pull on someone’s credit report and the buyer gave me the wrong SSN or transposed some digits, not only will these services give me their credit report and full account history, it also tells you what their correct SSN is,” Mrs. Holden said.

With Mr. Holden’s permission, I gave the site pictured above an old street address for him plus a made-up SSN, and provided my credit card number to pay for the report. The document generated by that request said TransUnion and Experian were unable to look up his credit score with the information provided. However, Equifax not only provided his current credit score, it helpfully corrected the false data I entered for Holden, providing the last four digits of his real SSN and current address.

“We assume our credit report is keyed off of our SSN or something unique about ourselves,” Mrs. Holden said. “But it’s really keyed off your White Pages information, meaning anyone can get your credit report if they are in the know.”

I was pleased to find that I was unable to pull my own credit score through this exposed online service, although the site still charged me $44. The report produced simply said the consumer in question had requested that access to this information be restricted. But the real reason was simply that I’ve had my credit file frozen for years now.

Many media outlets are publishing stories this week about the one-year anniversary of the breach at Equifax that exposed the personal and financial data on more than 147 million people. But it’s important for everyone to remember that as bad as the Equifax breach was (and it was a total dumpster fire all around), most of the consumer data exposed in the breach has been for sale in the cybercrime underground for many years on a majority of Americans — including access to consumer credit reports. If anything, the Equifax breach may have simply helped ID thieves refresh some of those criminal data stores.

It costs $35 worth of bitcoin through this cybercrime service to pull someone’s credit file from the three major credit bureaus. There are many services just like this one, which almost certainly abuse hacked accounts from various industries that have “legitimate” access to consumer credit reports.

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26
May 18

Why Is Your Location Data No Longer Private?

The past month has seen one blockbuster revelation after another about how our mobile phone and broadband providers have been leaking highly sensitive customer information, including real-time location data and customer account details. In the wake of these consumer privacy debacles, many are left wondering who’s responsible for policing these industries? How exactly did we get to this point? What prospects are there for changes to address this national privacy crisis at the legislative and regulatory levels? These are some of the questions we’ll explore in this article.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama Administration reclassified broadband Internet companies as telecommunications providers, which gave the agency authority to regulate broadband providers the same way as telephone companies.

The FCC also came up with so-called “net neutrality” rules designed to prohibit Internet providers from blocking or slowing down traffic, or from offering “fast lane” access to companies willing to pay extra for certain content or for higher quality service.

In mid-2016, the FCC adopted new privacy rules for all Internet providers that would have required providers to seek opt-in permission from customers before collecting, storing, sharing and selling anything that might be considered sensitive — including Web browsing, application usage and location information, as well as financial and health data.

But the Obama administration’s new FCC privacy rules didn’t become final until December 2016, a month after then President-elect Trump was welcomed into office by a Republican controlled House and Senate.

Congress still had 90 legislative days (when lawmakers are physically in session) to pass a resolution killing the privacy regulations, and on March 23, 2017 the Senate voted 50-48 to repeal them. Approval of the repeal in the House passed quickly thereafter, and President Trump officially signed it on April 3, 2017.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, Ajit Pai — a former Verizon lawyer and President Trump’s pick to lead the FCC — said “despite hyperventilating headlines, Internet service providers have never planned to sell your individual browsing history to third parties.”

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.

“That’s simply not how online advertising works,” Pai wrote. “And doing so would violate ISPs’ privacy promises. Second, Congress’s decision last week didn’t remove existing privacy protections; it simply cleared the way for us to work together to reinstate a rational and effective system for protecting consumer privacy.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) came to a different conclusion, predicting that the repeal of the FCC privacy rules would allow broadband providers to collect and sell a “gold mine of data” about customers.

“Your mobile broadband provider knows how you move about your day through information about your geolocation and internet activity through your mobile device,” Nelson said. The Senate resolution “will take consumers out of this driver’s seat and place the collection and use of their information behind a veil of secrecy.”

Meanwhile, pressure was building on the now Republican-controlled FCC to repeal the previous administration’s net neutrality rules. The major ISPs and mobile providers claimed the new regulations put them at a disadvantage relative to competitors that were not regulated by the FCC, such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

On Dec. 14, 2017, FCC Chairman Pai joined two other Republic FCC commissioners in a 3-2 vote to dismantle the net neutrality regulations.

As The New York Times observed after the net neutrality repeal, “the commission’s chairman, Ajit Pai, vigorously defended the repeal before the vote. He said the rollback of the rules would eventually benefit consumers because broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast could offer them a wider variety of service options.”

“We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” Mr. Pai said. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”

MORE OR LESS CHOICE?

Some might argue we’ve seen reduced competition and more industry consolidation since the FCC repealed the rules. Major broadband and mobile provider AT&T and cable/entertainment giant Time Warner are now fighting the Justice Department in a bid to merge. Two of the four-largest mobile telecom and broadband providers — T-Mobile and Sprint — have announced plans for a $26 billion merger.

The FCC privacy rules from 2016 that were overturned by Congress sought to give consumers more choice about how their data was to be used, stored and shared. But consumers now have less “choice” than ever about how their mobile provider shares their data and with whom. Worse, the mobile and broadband providers themselves are failing to secure their own customers’ data.

This month, it emerged that the major mobile providers have been giving commercial third-parties the ability to instantly look up the precise location of any mobile subscriber in real time. KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that one of these third parties — LocationSmartleaked this ability for years to anyone via a buggy component on its Web site.

LocationSmart’s demo page featured a buggy component which allowed anyone to look up anyone else’s mobile device location, in real time, and without consent.

We also learned that another California company — Securus Technologies — was selling real-time location lookups to a number of state and local law enforcement agencies, and that accounts for dozens of those law enforcement officers were obtained by hackers.  Securus, it turned out, was ultimately getting its data from LocationSmart.

This week, researchers discovered that a bug in T-Mobile’s Web site let anyone access the personal account details of any customer with just their cell phone number, including full name, address, account number and some cases tax ID numbers.

Not to be outdone, Comcast was revealed to have exposed sensitive information on customers through a buggy component of its Web site that could be tricked into displaying the home address where the company’s wireless router is located, as well as the router’s Wi-Fi name and password.

It’s not clear how FCC Chairman Pai intends to “reinstate a rational and effective system for protecting consumer privacy,” as he pledged after voting last year to overturn the 2015 privacy rules. The FCC reportedly has taken at least tentative steps to open an inquiry into the LocationSmart debacle, although Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has called on Chairman Pai to recuse himself on the inquiry because Pai once represented Securus as an attorney. (Wyden also had some choice words for the wireless companies).

The major wireless carriers all say they do not share customer location data without customer consent or in response to a court order or subpoena. Consent. All of these carriers pointed me to their privacy policies. It could be the carriers believe these policies clearly explain that simply by using their wireless device customers have opted-in to having their real-time location data sold or given to third-party companies.

Michelle De Mooy, director of the privacy and data project at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), said if the mobile giants are burying that disclosure in privacy policy legalese, that’s just not good enough.

“Even if they say, ‘Our privacy policy says we can do this,’ it violates peoples’ reasonable expectations of when and why their location data is being collected and how that’s going to be used. It’s not okay to simply point to your privacy policies and expect that to be enough.”

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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 →