Posts Tagged: Isha Sesay


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

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20
Aug 15

Street Gangs, Tax Fraud and ‘Drop Hoes’

Authorities across the United States this week arrested dozens of gang members who stand accused of making millions of dollars stealing consumer identities in order to file fraudulent tax refund requests with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The arrests highlight the dramatic shift in gang activity in recent years from high-risk drug dealing to identity fraud — a far less risky yet equally lucrative crime.

cashgrafAccording to a story last week at CBS in Los Angeles, some 32 members of the so-called Insane Crip gang and their associates were charged with 283 counts of criminal conspiracy, 299 counts of identity theft, 226 counts of grand theft and 58 counts of attempted theft. Together, they are accused of operating a $14.3 million identity theft and tax fraud scheme.

In Elizabeth, N.J., 14 members of a street gang were arrested in a 49-count indictment charging the defendants with a range of “white-collar crimes,” including filing false tax returns and manufacturing fake gift cards to collect thousands of dollars. According to NJ.com, the money from the scams was used to support members of the 111 Neighborhood Crips and to aid other gang members who were in jail or prison.

“All 14 defendants face charges under New Jersey’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute,” NJ’s Tom Haydon writes. “Defendants allegedly bought stolen identities of real people for use in the preparation of fraudulent W-2 forms. Those forms were used for fraudulent income tax returns filed early in the tax season.”

Tax return fraud costs consumers and the U.S. Treasury more than $6 billion annually, according the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And that number is by all accounts conservative. It should not be a surprise that street gangs are fast becoming the foot soldiers of cybercrime, which very often requires small armies of highly mobile individuals who can fan out across cities to cash out stolen credit cards and cash in on hijacked identities.

Tax fraud has become such an ingrained part of the modern gang culture that there is a growing set list of anthems to the crime — a type of rap music that evokes the Narcocorrido ballads of the Mexican drug cartels in that it glorifies making money from identity theft, credit card fraud and tax return fraud.

DROP HOES

A key component of cashing out tax return fraud involves recruiting unwitting or willing accomplices to receive the fraudulent refunds. Earlier this year, I wrote about Isha Sesay, a Pennsylvania woman who was arrested for receiving phony IRS refunds on behalf of at least two tax fraud victims — including Mike Kasper, the guy who helped expose the IRS’s pervasive authentication weaknesses and later testified to Congress about his ordeal.

Turns out, the sorts of gang members arrested in the above-mentioned crime sweeps have a different nickname for people like Ms. Sesay: Instead of money mules, they’re derisively known as “drop hoes.” In cybercriminal parlance, a “drop” is a person who can be recruited to help forward stolen funds or merchandise on to the criminals, providing a pivotal buffer against the cops for the thieves.

In this Youtube video (not safe for work), a self-styled rapper calling himself “J-Creek” opines about not being able to find enough drop hoes to help him cash out $40,000 in phony tax refund deposits to prepaid debit cards. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to pop music (let alone rap) but I think this work speaks for itself (if rather lewdly).

The artists allegedly responsible for the tax fraud paean, "Drop Hoes."

The artists allegedly responsible for the tax fraud paean, “Drop Hoes.”

Here are a few choice quotes from the song (I cut out much of it, and someone please correct me if I somehow butchered the lyrics here). I think my all-time favorite line is the one about the role of Intuit’s TurboTax: “She got them stacks then went tax on the turbo.” 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 →