Posts Tagged: tax refund fraud


24
Mar 17

Phishing 101 at the School of Hard Knocks

A recent, massive spike in sophisticated and successful phishing attacks is prompting many universities to speed up timetables for deploying mandatory two-factor authentication (2FA) — requiring a one-time code in addition to a password — for access to student and faculty services online. This is the story of one university that accelerated plans to require 2FA after witnessing nearly twice as many phishing victims in the first two-and-half months of this year than it saw in all of 2015.

bgBowling Green State University in Ohio has more than 20,000 students and faculty, and like virtually any other mid-sized state school its Internet users are constantly under attack from scammers trying to phish login credentials for email and online services.

BGSU had planned later this summer to make 2FA mandatory for access to the school’s portal — the primary place where students register for classes, pay bills, and otherwise manage their financial relationship to the university.

That is, until a surge in successful phishing attacks resulted in several students having bank accounts and W-2 tax forms siphoned.

On March 1, 2017 all BGSU account holders were required to change their passwords, and on March 15, 2017 two-factor authentication (Duo) protection was placed in front of the MyBGSU portal [full disclosure: Duo is a longtime advertiser on KrebsOnSecurity].

Matt Haschak, director of IT security and infrastructure at BGSU, said the number of compromised accounts detected at BGSU has risen from 250 in calendar year 2015 to 1000 in 2016, and to approximately 400 in the first 75 days of 2017.

Left unchecked, phishers are on track to steal credentials from nearly 10 percent of the BGSU student body by the end of this year. The university has offered 2FA options for its portal access since June 2016, but until this month few students or faculty were using it, Haschak said.

“We saw very low adoption when it was voluntary,” he said. “And typically the people who adopted it were not my big security risks.”

Haschak said it’s clear that the scale and size of the phishing problem is hardly unique to BGSU.

“As I keep preaching to our campus community, this is not unique to BGSU,” Haschak said. “I’ve been talking a lot lately to my counterparts at universities in Ohio and elsewhere, and we’re all getting hit with these attacks very heavily right now. Some of the phishing scams are pretty good, but unfortunately some are god-awful, and I think people are just not thinking or they’re too busy in their day, they receive something on their phone and they just click it.”

Last month, an especially tricky phishing scam fooled several students who are also employed at the university into giving away their BGSU portal passwords, after which the thieves changed the victims’ direct deposit information so that their money went to accounts controlled by the phishers.

In other scams, the phishers would change the routing number for a bank account tied to a portal user, and then cancel that student’s classes near the beginning of a semester — thus kicking off a fraudulent refund.

One of the victims even had a fraudulent tax refund request filed in her name with the IRS as a result, Haschak said.

“They went in and looked at her W-2 information, which is also available via the portal,” he said. Continue reading →


17
Mar 17

Govt. Cybersecurity Contractor Hit in W-2 Phishing Scam

Just a friendly reminder that phishing scams which spoof the boss and request W-2 tax data on employees are intensifying as tax time nears. The latest victim shows that even cybersecurity experts can fall prey to these increasingly sophisticated attacks.

athookOn Thursday, March 16, the CEO of Defense Point Security, LLC — a Virginia company that bills itself as “the choice provider of cyber security services to the federal government” — told all employees that their W-2 tax data was handed directly to fraudsters after someone inside the company got caught in a phisher’s net.

Alexandria, Va.-based Defense Point Security (recently acquired by management consulting giant Accenture) informed current and former employees this week via email that all of the data from their annual W-2 tax forms — including name, Social Security Number, address, compensation, tax withholding amounts — were snared by a targeted spear phishing email.

“I want to alert you that a Defense Point Security (DPS) team member was the victim of a targeted spear phishing email that resulted in the external release of IRS W-2 Forms for individuals who DPS employed in 2016,” Defense Point CEO George McKenzie wrote in the email alert to employees. “Unfortunately, your W-2 was among those released outside of DPS.”

W-2 scams start with spear phishing emails usually directed at finance and HR personnel. The scam emails will spoof a request from the organization’s CEO (or someone similarly high up in the organization) and request all employee W-2 forms.

Defense Point did not return calls or emails seeking comment. An Accenture spokesperson issued the following brief statement:  “Data protection and our employees are top priorities. Our leadership and security team are providing support to all impacted employees.”

The email that went out to Defense Point employees Thursday does not detail when this incident occurred, to whom the information was sent, or how many employees were impacted. But a review of information about the company on LinkedIn suggests the breach letter likely was sent to around 200 to 300 employees nationwide (if we count past employees also).

Among Defense Point’s more sensitive projects is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Security Operations Center (SOC) based out of Phoenix, Ariz. That SOC handles cyber incident response, vulnerability mitigation, incident handling and cybersecurity policy enforcement for the agency.

Fraudsters who perpetrate tax refund fraud prize W-2 information because it contains virtually all of the data one would need to fraudulently file someone’s taxes and request a large refund in their name. Scammers in tax years past also have massively phished online payroll management account credentials used by corporate HR professionals. This year, they are going after people who run tax preparation firms, and W-2’s are now being openly sold in underground cybercrime stores.

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. Continue reading →


2
Feb 17

IRS: Scam Blends CEO Fraud, W-2 Phishing

Most regular readers here are familiar with CEO fraud — e-mail scams in which the attacker spoofs the boss and tricks an employee at the organization into wiring funds to the fraudster. Loyal readers also have heard an earful about W-2 phishing, in which crooks impersonate the boss and request a copy of all employee tax forms. According to a new “urgent alert” issued by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, scammers are now combining both schemes and targeting a far broader range of organizations than ever before.

athookThe IRS said phishers are off to a much earlier start this year than in tax years past, trying to siphon W-2 data that can be used to file fraudulent refund requests on behalf of taxpayers. The agency warned that thieves also appear to be targeting a wider range of organizations in these W-2 phishing schemes, including school districts, healthcare organizations, chain restaurants, temporary staffing agencies, tribal organizations and nonprofits.

Perhaps because they are already impersonating the boss, the W-2 phishers feel like they’re leaving money on the table if they don’t also try to loot the victim organization’s treasury: According to the IRS, W-2 phishers very often now follow up with an “executive” email to the payroll or comptroller requesting that a wire transfer be made to a certain account.

“This is one of the most dangerous email phishing scams we’ve seen in a long time,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “Although not tax related, the wire transfer scam is being coupled with the W-2 scam email, and some companies have lost both employees’ W-2s and thousands of dollars.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been keeping a running tally of the financial devastation visited on companies via CEO fraud scams. In June 2016, the FBI estimated that crooks had stolen nearly $3.1 billion from more than 22,000 victims of these wire fraud schemes.

First surfacing in February 2016, the W-2 phishing scams also have netted thieves plenty of victims. At one point last year I was hearing from almost one new W-2 phishing victim each day. Some of the more prominent companies victimized by W-2 scams last year included Seagate Technology, Moneytree, Sprouts Farmer’s Market, and EWTN Global Catholic Network. 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 →


10
Jun 16

IRS Re-Enables ‘Get Transcript’ Feature

The Internal Revenue Service has re-enabled a service on its Web site that allows taxpayers to get a copy of their previous year’s tax transcript. The renewed effort to beef up taxpayer authentication methods at irs.gov comes more than a year after the agency disabled the transcript service because tax refund fraudsters were using it to steal sensitive data on consumers.

irsbldgDuring the height of tax-filing season in 2015, KrebsOnSecurity warned that identity thieves involved in tax refund fraud with the IRS were using irs.gov’s “Get Transcript” feature to glean salary and personal information they didn’t already have on targeted taxpayers. In May 2015, the IRS suspended the Get Transcript feature, citing its abuse by fraudsters and noting that some 100,000 taxpayers may have been victimized as a result.

In August 2015, the agency revised those estimates up to 330,000, but in February 2016, the IRS again more than doubled its estimate, saying the actual number of victims was probably closer to 724,000.

So exactly how does the new-and-improved Get Transcript feature validate that taxpayers who are requesting information aren’t cybercriminal imposters? According to the IRS’s Get Transcript FAQ, the visitor needs to supply a Social Security number (SSN) and have the following:

  • immediate access to your email account to receive a confirmation code;
  • name, birthdate, mailing address, and filing status from your most recent tax return;
  • an account number from either a credit card, auto loan, mortgage, home equity loan or home equity line of credit;
  • a mobile phone number with your name on the account.

“If you previously registered to use IRS Get Transcript Online, Identity Protection PIN, Online Payment Agreement, or ePostcard online services, log in with the same username and password you chose before,” the IRS said. “You’ll need to provide a financial account number and mobile phone number if you haven’t already done so.”

The agency said it will then verify your financial account number and mobile phone number with big-three credit bureau Equifax. Readers who have taken my advice and placed a security freeze on their credit files will need to request a temporary thaw in that freeze with Equifax before attempting to verify their identity with the IRS. Continue reading →


3
May 16

Fraudsters Steal Tax, Salary Data From ADP

Identity thieves stole tax and salary data from payroll giant ADP by registering accounts in the names of employees at more than a dozen customer firms, KrebsOnSecurity has learned. ADP says the incidents occurred because the victim companies all mistakenly published sensitive ADP account information online that made those firms easy targets for tax fraudsters.

adpPatterson, N.J.-based ADP provides payroll, tax and benefits administration for more than 640,000 companies. Last week, U.S. Bancorp (U.S. Bank) — the nation’s fifth-largest commercial bank — warned some of its employees that their W-2 data had been stolen thanks to a weakness in ADP’s customer portal.

ID thieves are interested in W-2 data because it contains much of the information needed to fraudulently request a large tax refund from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in someone else’s name. A reader who works at U.S. Bank shared a letter received from Jennie Carlson, the financial institution’s executive vice president of human resources.

“Since April 19, 2016, we have been actively investigating a security incident with our W-2 provider, ADP,” Carlson wrote. “During the course of that investigation we have learned that an external W-2 portal, maintained by ADP, may have been utilized by unauthorized individuals to access your W-2, which they may have used to file a fraudulent income tax return under your name.”

The letter continued:

“The incident originated because ADP offered an external online portal that has been exploited. For individuals who had never used the external portal, a registration had never been established. Criminals were able to take advantage of that situation to use confidential personal information from other sources to establish a registration in your name at ADP. Once the fraudulent registration was established, they were able to view or download your W-2.”

U.S. Bank spokesman Dana Ripley said the letter was sent to a “small population” of the bank’s more than 64,000 employees. Asked to comment on the letter from U.S. Bank, ADP confirmed that the fraud visited upon U.S. Bank also hit “a very small subset” of the ADP’s total customers this year.

ADP emphasized that the fraudsters needed to have the victim’s personal data — including name, date of birth and Social Security number — to successfully create an account in someone’s name. ADP also stressed that this personal data did not come from its systems, and that thieves appeared to already possess that data when they created the unauthorized accounts at ADP’s portal.

ADP Chief Security Officer Roland Cloutier said customers can choose to create an account at the ADP portal for each employee, or they can defer that process to a later date (but employers do have to chose one or the other, Cloutier said).

According to ADP, new users need to be in possession of two other things (in addition to the victim’s personal data) at a minimum in order to create an account: A custom, company-specific link provided by ADP, and a static code assigned to the customer by ADP.

The problem, Cloutier said, seems to stem from ADP customers that both deferred that signup process for some or all of their employees and at the same time inadvertently published online the link and the company code. As a result, for users who never registered, criminals were able to register as them with fairly basic personal info, and access W-2 data on those individuals. Continue reading →


16
Mar 16

Thieves Phish Moneytree Employee Tax Data

Payday lending firm Moneytree is the latest company to alert current and former employees that their tax data — including Social Security numbers, salary and address information — was accidentally handed over directly to scam artists.

moneytreeSeattle-based Moneytree sent an email to employees on March 4 stating that “one of our team members fell victim to a phishing scam and revealed payroll information to an external source.”

“Moneytree was apparently targeted by a scam in which the scammer impersonated me and asked for an emailed copy of certain information about the Company’s payroll including Team Member names, home addresses, social security numbers, birthdates and W2 information,” Moneytree co-founder Dennis Bassford wrote to employees.

The message continued:

“Unfortunately, this request was not recognized as a scam, and the information about current and former Team Members who worked in the US at Moneytree in 2015 or were hired in early 2016 was disclosed. The good news is that our servers and security systems were not breached, and our millions of customer records were not affected. The bad news is that our Team Members’ information has been compromised.”

A woman who answered a Moneytree phone number listed in the email confirmed the veracity of the co-founder’s message to employees, but would not say how many employees were notified. According to the company’s profile on Yellowpages.com, Moneytree Inc. maintains a staff of more than 1,200 employees. The company offers check cashing, payday loan, money order, wire transfer, mortgage, lending, prepaid gift cards, and copying and fax services.

Moneytree joins a growing list of companies disclosing to employees that they were duped by W2 phishing scams, which this author first warned about in mid-February.  Earlier this month, data storage giant Seagate acknowledged that a similar phishing scam had compromised the tax and personal data on thousands of current and past employees. Continue reading →


7
Mar 16

IRS Suspends Insecure ‘Get IP PIN’ Feature

Citing ongoing security concerns, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has suspended a service offered via its Web site that allowed taxpayers to retrieve so-called IP Protection PINs (IP PINs), codes that the IRS has mailed to some 2.7 million taxpayers to help prevent those individuals from becoming victims of tax refund fraud two years in a row. The move comes just days after KrebsOnSecurity first exposed how ID thieves were abusing the service to revisit tax refund on innocent taxpayers two years running.

irsbldgLast week, this blog told the story of Becky Wittrock, a certified public accountant (CPA) from Sioux Falls, S.D., who received an IP PIN in 2014 after crooks tried to impersonate her to the IRS. Wittrock said she found out her IP PIN had been compromised by thieves this year after she tried to file her tax return on Feb. 25, 2016. Turns out, the crooks beat her to the punch by more than three weeks, filing a large refund request with the IRS on Feb. 2, 2016.

The problem, as Wittrock’s case made clear, is that IRS allows IP PIN recipients to retrieve their PIN via the agency’s Web site, after supplying the answers to four easy-to-guess questions from consumer credit bureau Equifax. These so-called knowledge-based authentication (KBA) or “out-of-wallet” 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.

In a statement issued Monday evening, the IRS said that as part of its ongoing security review, the agency was temporarily suspending the Identity Protection PIN tool on IRS.gov.

“The IRS is conducting a further review of the application that allows taxpayers to retrieve their IP PINs online and is looking at further strengthening the security features on the tool,” the agency said. 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 →


1
Mar 16

Thieves Nab IRS PINs to Hijack Tax Refunds

Last year, KrebsOnSecurity warned that the Internal Revenue Service‘s (IRS) solution for helping victims of tax refund fraud avoid being victimized two years in a row was vulnerable to compromise by identity thieves. According to a story shared by one reader, the crooks are well aware of this security weakness and are using it to revisit tax refund fraud on at least some victims two years running — despite the IRS’s added ID theft protections.

irsbldgTax refund fraud affects hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of U.S. citizens annually. It starts when crooks submit your personal data to the IRS and claim a refund in your name, but have the money sent to an account or address you don’t control.

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.

The IRS’s preferred method of protecting tax refund victims from getting hit two years in a row — the Identity Protection (IP) PIN — has already been mailed to some 2.7 million tax ID theft victims. The six-digit PIN must be supplied on the following year’s tax application before the IRS will accept the return as valid.

As I’ve noted in several stories here, the trouble 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 four easy-to-guess questions from consumer credit bureau Equifax.  These so-called knowledge-based authentication (KBA) or “out-of-wallet” 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.

Becky Wittrock, a certified public accountant (CPA) from Sioux Falls, S.D., said she received an IP PIN in 2014 after crooks tried to impersonate her to the IRS.

Wittrock said she found out her IP PIN had been compromised by thieves this year after she tried to file her tax return on Feb. 25, 2016. Turns out, the crooks beat her to the punch by more than three weeks, filing a large refund request with the IRS on Feb. 2, 2016. 

“So, last year I was devastated by this,” Wittrock said, “But this year I’m just pissed.”

Wittrock said she called the toll-free number for the IRS that was printed on the identity theft literature she received from the year before.

“I tried to e-file this weekend and the return was rejected,” Wittrock said. “I received the PIN since I had IRS fraud on my 2014 return. I called the IRS this morning and they stated that the fraudulent use of IP PINs is a big problem for them this year.”

Wittrock said that to verify herself to the IRS representative, she had to regurgitate a litany of static data points about herself, such as her name, address, Social Security number, birthday, how she filed the previous year (married/single/etc), whether she claimed any dependents and if so how many. 

“The guy said, ‘Yes, I do see a return was filed under your name on Feb. 2, and that there was the correct IP PIN supplied’,” Wittrock recalled. “I asked him how can that be, and he said, ‘You’re not the first, we’ve had many cases of that this year.'”

According to Wittrock, the IRS representative shared that the agency wouldn’t be relying on IP PINs for long.

“He said, ‘We won’t be using the six digit PIN next year. We’re working on coming up with another method of verification’,” she recalled. “He also had thrown in something about [requiring] a driver’s license, which didn’t sound like a good solution to me.” Continue reading →