Posts Tagged: H&R Block


14
Dec 15

Don’t Be a Victim of Tax Refund Fraud in ’16

With little more than a month to go before the start of the 2016 tax filing season, the IRS and the states are hunkering down for an expected slugfest with identity thieves who make a living requesting fraudulent tax refunds on behalf of victims. Here’s what you need to know going into January to protect you and your family.

The Growing Tax Fraud MenaceThe good news is that the states and Uncle Sam have got a whole new bag of technological tricks up their sleeves this coming tax season. The bad news is ID thieves are already testing those defenses, and will be working against a financially strapped federal agency that’s been forced to cede much of its ability to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

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.

By all accounts, the IRS has improved at blocking phony refund requests. The agency estimates it prevented $24.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in 2013. Trouble is, it paid out some $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds that year that it later determined were bogus, and experts say that is only the fraud the agency knows about, and the true number is likely much higher annually.

Perhaps in response to the IRS’s increasing ability to separate phony returns from legitimate ones, crooks last year massively focused on filing bogus refund requests with the 50 U.S states. To head off a recurrence of that trend in the 2016 filing season, the states and the IRS have hammered out an agreement to examine more than 20 new data elements collected by online providers like TurboTax and H&R Block.

Those new data elements include checking for the repetitive use of the same Internet address to rapidly file multiple returns, and reviewing computer device information (browser user agent string, cookies e.g.) tied to the return’s origin. Another check involves measuring the time it takes to file a return; fraudsters involved in tax refund fraud tend to breeze through returns in just a few minutes because they are generally copying and pasting information into the tax forms, or relying on an automated program to do it for them.

The hope is that the these new checks will let investigators more accurately flag suspicious refund requests processed by tax preparation firms, which also have agreed to beef up lax security around customer accounts. Under the agreement, online providers will enforce:

  • new password standards to include a minimum of eight characters, with upper, lowercase, alphanumerical and special characters;
  • a lock-out feature that blocks users with too many unsuccessful login attempts;
  • the addition of three security questions;
  • some sort of out-of-band verification for email addresses — sending an email or text to the customer with a personal identification number (PIN).

Julie Magee, Alabama’s chief tax administrator, said the state/IRS task force opted not to disclose all 20 of the data elements they will be collecting from tax prep firms.

“The thieves are going to figure these out on their own, and they’re already testing our defenses,” Magee told KrebsOnSecurity. “We don’t want to do anything to make that easier for them.”

ANALYSIS

Whether or not we see an increase in tax refund fraud next year, one thing seems certain: the IRS will prosecute far fewer of the crooks involved. Congress has persistently underfunded the IRS, and budget cuts have pushed prosecutions of identity thieves to a new low. According to the IRS’s 2015 Annual Report, IRS identity theft criminal investigations are down almost 50 percent since 2013.

irs-idtheftprosecutions13-15

Tax fraudsters were so aggressive last year that they figured out how to steal consumer identities directly from the agency itself. In August 2015, the IRS disclosed that crooks abused the “Get Transcript” feature on its Web site to steal Social Security numbers and information from previous years’ tax filings on more than 334,000 Americans.

The IRS has responded to the problem of tax ID theft partly by offering Identity Protection PINs (IP PINs) to affected taxpayers that must be supplied on the following year’s tax application before the IRS will accept the return. However, consumers still have to request an IP PIN by applying for one at the agency’s site, or by mailing in form 14039 (PDF).

Incredibly, the process that thieves abused to steal tax transcripts from 334,000 taxpayers this year from the IRS’s site also works to fraudulently obtain a consumer’s IP PIN. In fact, the following redacted screen shot from a notorious cybercrime forum shows a seasoned tax fraudster teaching would-be scammers how to use the IRS’s site to obtain a victim’s IP PIN.

ippin

Continue reading →


2
Jun 15

States Seek Better Mousetrap to Stop Tax Refund Fraud

With the 2014 tax filing season in the rearview mirror, state tax authorities are struggling to incorporate new approaches to identifying and stopping fraudulent tax refund requests, a $6 billion-a-year problem that’s hit many states particularly hard this year. But some states say they are encountering resistance to those efforts on nearly every front, from Uncle Sam to online tax vendors and from the myriad of financial firms that profit handsomely from processing phony tax refunds.

Cash Cow: Check out this primer on which companies are profiting from tax refund fraud.

Cash Cow: Click on the image above for a primer on how many companies are profiting from tax refund fraud.

Last week, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disclosed that thieves had stolen up to $50 million in phony refunds by pulling tax data on more than 100,000 Americans directly from the agency’s own Web site. The thieves were able to do this for the same reason that fraudsters are able to get away with filing and getting paid for bogus refunds: The IRS, the states and the tax preparation firms all try to authenticate filers based on static identifiers about the filer — such as birthdays and Social Security numbers, as well as answers to a handful of easily-guessed or researched “knowledge based-authentication” questions.

I spoke at length with several state tax commissioners about the size and scope of the tax refund fraud problem, and what the IRS and the states are doing to move beyond reliance on static identifiers to authenticate taxpayers. One of the state experts I spoke with was Julie Magee, commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Revenue.

Magee described her work on a new task force organized by the IRS aimed at finding solutions for reducing the tax refund fraud problem across the board. Magee is one of several folks working on a fraud and authentication working group within the IRS’s task force, which is trying to come to a consensus about ways to do a better job authenticating taxpayers and to improve security around online tax preparation services such as TurboTax.

Earlier this year, TurboTax briefly suspended the online filing of state tax returns after dozens of state revenue departments complained about a massive spike in fraudulent refund requests — many of which were tied back to hijacked or fraudulently-created TurboTax accounts.

One of those victimized in that scourge was Joe W. Garrett, — Magee’s deputy commissioner — who had a $7,700 fraudulent return filed in his name after thieves created a duplicate TurboTax account with his personal information.

Magee said her working group — one of three on the IRS’s task force — is populated by stakeholders with competing agendas.

“You have companies like Intuit that don’t want the government getting into the online tax preparation business, and then there are the bricks-and-mortar operations like Liberty and H&R Block that don’t want to see their businesses cannibalized by the do-it-yourself online firms like TurboTax,” Magee said. “And then we have the banking industry, which is making a fortune off of this whole problem. Right now, the only entities that are really losing out are states and the US Treasury.” (For a look at which companies stand to profit from fraudulent refunds, see this sidebar).

In February, KrebsOnSecurity published exclusive interviews with two former TurboTax security professionals who accused TurboTax of making millions of dollars knowingly processing state and federal tax refunds filed by identity thieves. Magee said Intuit — the company that owns TurboTax — came to the first two working group meetings with a plan to provide states with an anti-fraud screening mechanism similar to Apple Pay‘s “green/yellow/red path” program, which seeks to offer participating banks some idea of the relative likelihood that a given new customer is in fact a fraudster signing up in the name of an ID theft victim.

“The first two meetings, Intuit acted like they were leading the charge on this, and they were really amenable to everything,” Magee said. “They had come up with an idea that was very much like the red- yellow-green kind of thing, and they were asking us what data elements they should be looking at and sharing.” greenyellowred

According to the Alabama tax commissioner, that’s when the American Coalition for Taxpayer Rights (ACTR), a trade group representing the tax preparation firms, stepped in. “The lobbyist group put the kibosh on that idea. They basically said it’s not their right to be the police – that it should be the IRS or the states — but that they would be more than willing to send us the indicators and that we could use our own system to do the scoring,” Magee said. “The states aren’t hung up on getting some red, yellow, green type system. I think we’re more interested in making sure data elements we can use to make a score are passed on to us.”

Magee said ACTR also protested that tax prep firms like Intuit couldn’t legally share certain information about their customers with the states and the IRS. Representatives with ACTR did not respond to requests for comment. Intuit declined to be interviewed for this story.

“They threw up a red flag and basically said, ‘We can’t you pass that information because it’s protected by IRS code sections regarding taxpayer confidentiality issues,'” Magee recalled. “Thankfully, the IRS brought in their attorneys and the commissioner a few weeks ago and they said, ‘That’s bunk, you can most certainly send that information to us and to the states. So we won that battle.” Continue reading →


25
Mar 15

Tax Fraud Advice, Straight from the Scammers

Some of the most frank and useful information about how to fight fraud comes directly from the mouths of the crooks themselves. Online cybercrime forums play a critical role here, allowing thieves to compare notes about how to evade new security roadblocks and steer clear of fraud tripwires. And few topics so reliably generate discussion on crime forums around this time of year as tax return fraud, as we’ll see in the conversations highlighted in this post.

File 'em Before the Bad Guys Can

File ’em Before the Bad Guys Can

As several stories these past few months have noted, those involved in tax refund fraud shifted more of their activities away from the Internal Revenue Service and toward state tax filings. This shift is broadly reflected in discussions on several fraud forums from 2014, in which members lament the apparent introduction of new fraud “filters” by the IRS that reportedly made perpetrating this crime at the federal level more challenging for some scammers.

One outspoken and unrepentant tax fraudster — a ne’er-do-well using the screen name “Peleus” — reported that he had far more luck filing phony returns at the state level last year. Peleus posted the following experience to a popular fraud forum in February 2014:

“Just wanted to share a bit of my results to see if everyone is doing so bad or it just me…Federal this year has been a pain in the ass. I have about 35 applications made for federal with only 2 paid refunds…I started early in January (15-20) on TT [TurboTax] and HR [H&R Block] and made about 35 applications on Federal and State..My stats are as follows:

Federal: 35 applications (less than 10% approval rate) – average per return $2500

State: 35 apps – 15 approved (average per return $1600). State works just as great as last year, their approval rate is nearly 50% and processing time no more than 10 – 12 days.

I know that the IRS has new check filters this year but federals suck big time this year, i only got 2 refunds approved from 35 applications …all my federals are between $2300 – $2600 which is the average refund amount in the US so i wouldn’t raise any flags…I also put a small yearly salary like 25-30k….All this precautions and my results still suck big time compared to last year when i had like 30%- 35% approval rate …what the fuck changed this year? Do they check the EIN from last year’s return so you need his real employer information?”

A seasoned tax return fraudster discusses strategy.

A seasoned tax return fraudster discusses strategy.

Several seasoned members of this fraud forum responded that the IRS had indeed become more strict in validating whether the W2 information supplied by the filer had the proper Employer Identification Number (EIN), a unique tax ID number assigned to each company. The fraudsters then proceeded to discuss various ways to mine social networking sites like LinkedIn for victims’ employer information.

GET YER EINs HERE

A sidebar is probably in order here. EINs are not exactly state secrets. Public companies publish their EINs on the first page of their annual 10-K filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, EINs for millions of small companies here in the United States are not so easy to find, and many small business owners probably treat this information as confidential.

Nevertheless, a number of organizations specialize in selling access to EINs. One of the biggest is Dun & Bradstreet, which, as I detailed in a 2013 exposé, Data Broker Giants Hacked by ID Theft Service, was compromised for six months by a service selling Social Security numbers and other data to identity thieves like Peleus.

Last year, I heard from a source close to the investigation into the Dun & Bradstreet breach who said the thieves responsible made off with more than six million EINs. In December 2014, I asked Dun &Bradstreet about the veracity of this claim, and received a blanket statement that did not address the six million figure, but stressed that EINs are not personally identifiable information and are available to the public. Continue reading →


22
Feb 15

TurboTax’s Anti-Fraud Efforts Under Scrutiny

Two former security employees at Intuit — the makers of the popular tax preparation software and service TurboTax — allege that the company has made millions of dollars knowingly processing state and federal tax refunds filed by cybercriminals. Intuit says it leads the industry in voluntarily reporting suspicious returns, and that ultimately it is up to the Internal Revenue Service to develop industry-wide requirements for tax preparation firms to follow in their fight against the multi-billion dollar problem of tax refund fraud.

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity published an exclusive interview with Indu Kodukula, Intuit’s chief information security officer. Kodukula explained that customer password re-use was a major cause of a spike this tax season in fraudulent state tax refund requests. The increase in phony state refund requests prompted several state revenue departments to complain to their state attorneys general. In response, TurboTax temporarily halted all state filings while it investigated claims of a possible breach. The company resumed state filing shortly after that pause, saying it could find no evidence that customers’ TurboTax credentials had been stolen from its network.

Kodukula noted that although the incidence of hijacked, existing TurboTax accounts was rapidly growing, the majority of refund scams the company has to deal with stem from “stolen identity refund fraud” or SIRF. In SIRF, the thieves gather pieces of data about taxpayers from outside means — through phishing attacks or identity theft services in the underground, for example — then create accounts at TurboTax in the victims’ names and file fraudulent tax refund claims with the IRS.

Kodukula cast Intuit as an industry leader in helping the IRS identify and ultimately deny suspicious tax returns. But that portrayal only tells part of the story, according to two former Intuit employees who until recently each held crucial security positions helping the company identify and fight tax fraud. Both individuals described a company that has intentionally dialed back efforts to crack down on SIRF so as not to lose market share when fraudsters began shifting their business to Intuit’s competitors.

Robert Lee, a security business partner at Intuit’s consumer tax group until his departure from the company in July 2014, said he and his team at Intuit developed sophisticated fraud models to help Intuit quickly identify and close accounts that were being used by crooks to commit massive amounts of SIRF fraud.

But Lee said he was mystified when Intuit repeatedly refused to adopt some basic policies that would make it more costly and complicated for fraudsters to abuse the company’s service for tax refund fraud, such as blocking the re-use of the same Social Security number across a certain number of TurboTax accounts, or preventing the same account from filing more than a small number of tax returns.

“If I sign up for an account and file tax refund requests on 100 people who are not me, it’s obviously fraud,” Lee said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “We found literally millions of accounts that were 100 percent used only for fraud. But management explicitly forbade us from either flagging the accounts as fraudulent, or turning off those accounts.

The allegations surface just days after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said his panel will be holding hearings on reports about a spike in fraudulent filings through TurboTax and elsewhere. The House Ways and Means Committee is reportedly looking into the matter and has held bipartisan staff-level discussions with the IRS and Intuit.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it received 332,646 identity theft complaints in the calendar year 2014, and that almost one-third of them — the largest portion — were tax-related identity theft complaints. Tax identity theft has been the largest ID theft category for the last five years.

According to a recent report (PDF) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the IRS estimated it prevented $24.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in 2013.  Unfortunately, the IRS also paid $5.8 billion that year for refund requests later determined to be fraud. The GAO noted that because of the difficulties in knowing the amount of undetected fraud, the actual amount could far exceed those estimates.

SQUEEZING THE BALLOON

Lee said the scammers who hijack existing TurboTax accounts most often will use stolen credit cards to pay the $25-$50 TurboTax fee for processing and sending the refund request to the IRS.

But he said the crooks perpetrating SIRF typically force the IRS — and, by extension, U.S. taxpayers — to cover the fee for their bogus filings. That’s because most SIRF filings take advantage of what’s known in the online tax preparation business as a ‘refund transfer’, which deducts TurboTax’s filing fee from the total amount of the fraudulent refund request. If the IRS then approves the fraudulent return, TurboTax gets paid.

“The reason fraudsters love this system is because they don’t even have to use stolen credit cards to do it,” Lee said. “What’s really going on here is that the fraud business is actually profitable for Intuit.”

Lee confirmed Kodukula’s narrative that Intuit is an industry leader in sending the IRS regular reports about tax returns that appear suspicious. But he said the company eventually scaled back those reports after noticing that the overall fraud the IRS was reporting wasn’t decreasing as a result of Intuit’s reporting: Fraudsters were simply taking their business to Intuit’s competitors.

“We noticed the IRS started taking action, and because of this, we started to see not only our fraud numbers but also our revenue go down before the peak of tax season a couple of years ago,” Lee recalled. “When we stopped or delayed sending those fraud numbers, we saw the fraud and our revenue go back up.

Lee said that early on, the reports on returns that Intuit’s fraud teams flagged as bogus were sent immediately to the IRS.

“Then, there was a time period where we didn’t deliver that information at all,” he said. “And then at one point there was a two-week delay added between the time the information was ready and the time it was submitted to the IRS. There was no technical reason for that delay, but I can only speculate what the real justification for that was.”

KrebsOnSecurity obtained a copy of a recording made of an internal Intuit conference call on Oct. 14, 2014, in which Michael Lyons, TurboTax’s deputy general counsel, describes the risks of the company being overly aggressive — relative to its competitors — in flagging suspicious tax returns for the IRS.

“As you can imagine, the bad guys being smart and savvy, they saw this and noticed it, they just went somewhere else,” Lyons said in the recording. “The amount of fraudulent activity didn’t change. The landscape didn’t change. It was like squeezing a balloon. They recognized that TurboTax returns were getting stopped at the door. So they said, ‘We’ll just go over to H&R Block, to TaxSlayer or TaxAct, or whatever.’ And all of a sudden we saw what we call ‘multi-filer activity’ had completely dropped off a cliff but the amount that the IRS reported coming through digital channels and through their self reported fraud network was not changing at all. The bad guys had just gone from us to others.”

That recording was shared by Shane MacDougall, formerly a principal security engineer at Intuit. MacDougall resigned from the company last week and filed an official whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that the company routinely placed profits ahead of ethics. MacDougall submitted the recording in his filing with the SEC.

“Complainant repeatedly raised issues with managers, directors, and even [a senior vice president] of the company to try to rectify ongoing fraud, but was repeatedly rebuffed and told Intuit couldn’t do anything that would ‘hurt the numbers’,” MacDougall wrote in his SEC filing. “Complainant repeatedly offered solutions to help stop the fraud, but was ignored.”

NO RULES OF THE ROAD

For its part, Intuit maintains that it is well out in front of its competitors in voluntarily reporting to the IRS refund requests that the company has flagged as suspicious. The company also stresses that it has done so even though the IRS still has not promulgated rules that require TurboTax and its competitors to report suspicious returns  — or even how to report such activity. Intuit executives say they went to the IRS three years ago to request specific authority to share that information. The IRS did not respond to requests for comment.

Intuit officials declined to address Lyons’ recorded comments specifically, although they did confirm that a company attorney led an employee WebEx meeting on the date the recording was made. But David Williams, Intuit’s chief tax officer, said what’s missing from the recorded conversation excerpted above is that Intuit has been at the forefront of asking the IRS to propose industry standards that every industry player can follow — requests that have so far gone unheeded.

“We have led the industry in making suspicious activity reports, and I’d venture to say that virtually all of the returns that Mr. Lee is quoted as referring to appear in our suspicious activity reports and are stopped by the IRS,” Williams said. “Whatever else Mr. Lee may have seen, I’m not buying the premise that somehow there was a profit motive in it for us.”

Robert Lanesey, Inuit’s chief communications officer, said Intuit doesn’t make a penny on tax filings that are ultimately rejected by the IRS.

“Revenue that comes from reports included in our suspicious activity reports to the IRS has dropped precipitously as we have changed and improved our reporting mechanisms,” Lanesey said. “When it comes to market share, it doesn’t count toward our market share unless it’s a successful return. We’ve gotten better and we’ve gotten more accurate, but it’s not about money.”

Williams added that it is not up to Intuit to block returns from being filed, and that it is the IRS’s sole determination whether to process a given refund request.

“We will flag them as suspicious, but we do not get to determine if a return is fraud,” Williams said. “It’s the IRS’s responsibility and ultimately they make that decision. What I will tell you is that of the ones we report as suspicious, the IRS rejects a very high percentage, somewhere in the 80-90 percent range.”

Earlier this month, Intuit CEO Brad Smith sent a letter to the commissioner of the IRS,  noting that while Intuit sends reports to the IRS when it sees patterns of suspicious behavior, the government has been limited in the types of information it can share with parties, including tax-preparation firms.

“The IRS could be the convener to bring the States together to help drive common standards adoption,” Smith wrote, offering the assistance of Intuit staff members “to work directly with the IRS and the States in whatever ways may be of assistance…as the fight against fraud goes forward.”

ZERO FALSE POSITIVES

Lee and MacDougall both said Intuit’s official approach to fighting fraud is guided by a policy of zero tolerance for so-called “false positives” — the problem of incorrectly flagging a legitimate customer refund request as suspicious, and possibly incurring the double whammy of a delay in the customer’s refund and an inquiry by the IRS. This is supported by audio recordings of conference calls between Intuit’s senior executives that were shared with KrebsOnSecurity.

“We protect the sanctity of the customer experience and hold it as inviolate,” Intuit’s General
Counsel Michael Lyons can be heard saying on a recorded October 2014 internal conference call. “We do everything we can to organize the best screening program we can, but we avoid false positives at all costs. Because getting a legitimate taxpayer ensnared in the ‘you’re a bad guy’ area with the IRS is hell. Once your return gets flagged as suspicious, rejected and the IRS starts investigating, you’re not in a good place. More than 50 percent of people out there are living paycheck to paycheck, and when this is the biggest paycheck of the year for them, they can’t afford to get erroneously flagged as fraud and have to prove to the IRS who they are so that they can get that legitimate refund that they were expecting months ago.”

On the same conference call, MacDougall can be heard asking Lyons why the company wouldn’t want to use security as a way to set the company apart from its competitors in the online tax preparation industry.

Continue reading →


6
Feb 15

Citing Tax Fraud Spike, TurboTax Suspends State E-Filings

TurboTax owner Intuit Inc. said Thursday that it is temporarily suspending the transmission of state e-filed tax returns in response to a surge in complaints from consumers who logged into their TurboTax accounts only to find crooks had already claimed a refund in their name.

dyot copy2“During this tax season, Intuit and some states have seen an increase in suspicious filings and attempts by criminals to use stolen identity information to file fraudulent state tax returns and claim tax refunds,” the company said in a statement.

Intuit said a third-party security audit turned up no signs of a security breach with the company, and that the information used to file fraudulent returns appears to have been obtained from other sources outside the tax preparation process.

“As it worked with state governments to assess and resolve the recent issues, Intuit took the precautionary step Thursday, Feb. 5, of temporarily pausing its transmission of state e-filing tax returns,” the company’s statement continued.

“Intuit will be working with the states today to begin turning transmissions back on. Customers who have already filed their state tax returns using Intuit software during this temporary pause will have their returns transmitted as soon as possible. They do not need to take further action at this time. This action does not affect the filing of federal income tax returns, and is limited to those states that require residents to file returns.”

This is hardly a new problem, but I have no doubt we are seeing even more phony tax refund claims than last year (in which my own taxes were filed fraudulently). Cyber thieves have long sought stolen credentials for hijacked tax preparation accounts at TurboTax, H&R Block and related services. Typically, the usernames and passwords for consumer accounts at these services are obtained via password-stealing malware that infects end-user PCs (see my Value of a Hacked PC graphic for more such examples.)

Victims also can see their tax accounts hijacked if crooks assume control over their inboxes as well, since tax preparation services — like most sites — allow users to reset their passwords by requesting a password reset link via email (see my Value of a Hacked Email Account graphic for additional examples like this). And of course phishers frequently impersonate tax preparation firms in a bid to steal credentials.

Stolen TurboTax or H&R Block credentials are cheaper and more plentiful than most people probably would imagine. According to the below-pictured well-known seller on the Dark Web forum Evolution Market, hacked accounts currently can be had for .0002 bitcoins, which works out to about 4 cents apiece.

A seller of hacked accounts on the Dark Web community Evolution Market sells hacked TurboTax and H&R Block accounts for pennies apiece.

A seller of hacked accounts on the Dark Web community Evolution Market sells hacked TurboTax and H&R Block accounts for pennies apiece.

Continue reading →


14
Apr 14

Crimeware Helps File Fraudulent Tax Returns

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.

The control panel for a tax fraud botnet involving more than a half dozen victim organizations.

An obfuscated look at the he control panel for a tax fraud operation involving more than a half dozen victim organizations.

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.

The "drops" page of this tax  fraud operation lists the nicknames of the co-conspirators who agreed to "cash out" funds on the prepaid cards generated by the bogus returns -- minus a small commission.

The “drops” page of this tax fraud operation lists the nicknames of the co-conspirators who agreed to “cash out” funds on the prepaid cards generated by the bogus returns — minus a small commission.

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.” Continue reading →