Posts Tagged: tax fraud

Aug 15

IRS: 330K Taxpayers Hit by ‘Get Transcript’ Scam

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disclosed today that identity thieves abused a feature on the agency’s Web site to pull sensitive data on more than 330,000 potential victims as part of a scheme to file fraudulent tax refund requests. The new figure is far larger than the number of Americans the IRS said were potentially impacted when it first acknowledged the vulnerability in May 2015 — two months after KrebsOnSecurity first raised alarms about the weakness.

Screenshot 2015-03-29 14.22.55In March 2015, I warned readers to Sign Up at Before Crooks Do It For You — which tracked the nightmarish story of Michael Kasper, one of millions of Americans victimized by tax refund fraud each year. When Kasper tried to get a transcript of the fraudulent return using the “Get Transcript” function on, he learned that someone had already registered through the IRS’s site using his Social Security number and an unknown email address.

Two months later, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen publicly acknowledged that crooks had used this feature to pull sensitive data on at least 110,000 taxpayers. Today, the Associated Press and other news outlets reported that the IRS is now revising those figures, estimating that an additional 220,000 potential victims had Social Security numbers and information from previous years’ tax filings stolen via the IRS Web site.

“In all, the thieves used personal information from about 610,000 taxpayers in an effort to access old tax returns,” the AP story notes. “They were successful in getting information from about 334,000 taxpayers.”


The IRS’s experience should tell consumers something about the effectiveness of the technology that the IRS, banks and countless other organizations use to screen requests for sensitive information.

As I reported in March, taxpayers who wished to obtain a copy of their most recent tax transcript had to provide the IRS with the following information: The applicant’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and filing status. After that data is successfully supplied, the IRS uses a service from credit bureau Equifax that asks four so-called “knowledge-based authentication” (KBA) questions. Anyone who succeeds in supplying the correct answers can 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.

If any readers here doubt how easy it is to buy personal data on just about anyone, check out the story I wrote in December 2014, wherein I was able to find the name, address, Social Security number, previous address and phone number on all current members of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. This information is no longer secret (nor are the answers to KBA-based questions), and we are all made vulnerable to identity theft as long as institutions continue to rely on static information as authenticators.

Unfortunately, the IRS is not the only government agency whose reliance on static identifiers actually makes them complicit in facilitating identity theft against Americans. The same process described to obtain a tax transcript at works to obtain a free credit report from, a Web site mandated by Congress. In addition, Americans who have not already created an account at the Social Security Administration under their Social Security number are vulnerable to crooks hijacking SSA benefits now or in the future. For more on how crooks are siphoning Social Security benefits via government sites, check out this story.


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, according to Kasper — the tax ID theft victim whose story first prompted my reporting on the Get Transcript abuse problem back in March — the Web site allows consumers who have lost their IP PINs to recover them, and incredibly that feature is still using the same authentication method relied upon by  the IRS’s flawed Get Transcript function.

Continue reading →

Apr 15

A Day in the Life of a Stolen Healthcare Record

When your credit card gets stolen because a merchant you did business with got hacked, it’s often quite easy for investigators to figure out which company was victimized. The process of divining the provenance of stolen healthcare records, however, is far trickier because these records typically are processed or handled by a gauntlet of third party firms, most of which have no direct relationship with the patient or customer ultimately harmed by the breach.

I was reminded of this last month, after receiving a tip from a source at a cyber intelligence firm based in California who asked to remain anonymous. My source had discovered a seller on the darknet marketplace AlphaBay who was posting stolen healthcare data into a subsection of the market called “Random DB ripoffs,” (“DB,” of course, is short for “database”).

Eventually, this same fraudster leaked a large text file titled, “Tenet Health Hilton Medical Center,” which contained the name, address, Social Security number and other sensitive information on dozens of physicians across the country.

AlphaBayHealthContacted by KrebsOnSecurity, Tenet Health officials said the data was not stolen from its databases, but rather from a company called InCompass Healthcare. Turns out, InCompass disclosed a breach in August 2014, which reportedly occurred after a subcontractor of one of the company’s service providers failed to secure a computer server containing account information. The affected company was 24 ON Physicians, an affiliate of InCompass Healthcare.

“The breach affected approximately 10,000 patients treated at 29 facilities throughout the U.S. and approximately 40 employed physicians,” wrote Rebecca Kirkham, a spokeswoman for InCompass.

“As a result, a limited amount of personal information may have been exposed to the Internet between December 1, 2013 and April 17, 2014, Kirkham wrote in an emailed statement. Information that may have been exposed included patient names, invoice numbers, procedure codes, dates of service, charge amounts, balance due, policy numbers, and billing-related status comments. Patient social security number, home address, telephone number and date of birth were not in the files that were subject to possible exposure. Additionally, no patient medical records or bank account information were put at risk. The physician information that may have been exposed included physician name, facility, provider number and social security number.”

Kirkham said up until being contacted by this reporter, InCompass “had received no indication that personal information has been acquired or used maliciously.”

So who was the subcontractor that leaked the data? According to (and now confirmed by InCompass), the subcontractor responsible was PST Services, a McKesson subsidiary providing medical billing services, which left more than 10,000 patients’ information exposed via Google search for over four months.

As this incident shows, a breach at one service provider or healthcare billing company can have a broad impact across the healthcare system, but can be quite challenging to piece together. Continue reading →

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 →