Posts Tagged: tax refund fraud


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 →


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 →


24
Feb 16

Phishers Spoof CEO, Request W2 Forms

With tax filing season in the United States well underway, scammers who specialize in tax refund fraud have a new trick up their sleeves: Spoofing emails from a target organization’s CEO, asking human resources and accounting departments for employee W-2 information.

athookStu Sjouwerman, chief executive at security awareness training company KnowBe4, told KrebsOnSecurity that earlier this week his firm’s controller received an email designed to look like it was sent by Sjouwerman requesting a copy of all employee W-2 forms for this year (full disclosure: KnowBe4 is an advertiser on this site). The email read:

“Alanna,

I want you to send me the list of W-2 copy of employees wage and tax statement for 2015, I need them in PDF file type, you can send it as an attachment. Kindly prepare the lists and email them to me asap.

Stu”x

Turns out, KnowBe4 just hired a new chief financial officer. The controller answered that she didn’t have access to that information, but that the new CFO could help. Sjourwerman said an analysis of the email headers showed the phishers used someone’s GoDaddy email server and the return address was not associated with the company.

“Our CFO had just stepped through all of our awareness training and smelled something phishy,” Sjourwerman said. “The two of them walked up to me and asked if I had requested a PDF with all W-2’s. Obviously, I hadn’t, and congratulated them on a good catch. But imagine if we would have sent off those W-2’s! It would have opened up our employees to identity theft because the W-2’s have their full name, address, wages and Social Security number.”

knowbe4phish

Continue reading →