Posts Tagged: tax return fraud


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 →


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 →


17
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 IRS.gov 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 IRS.gov, 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.”

A BROKEN PROCESS

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 irs.gov works to obtain a free credit report from annualcreditreport.com, 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 IS STILL VULNERABLE

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 IRS.gov 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 →


9
Jun 15

Firms Could Be Forced to Disgorge Profits from Tax Refund Fraud

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity ran an interview with Julie Magee, Alabama’s chief tax administrator, to examine what the states are doing in tandem with the IRS and others to make it harder for ID thieves to commit tax refund fraud — a $6 billion a year problem. Today we’ll hear from John Valentine, chair of Utah’s State Tax Commission, about the challenges his state faced this year, as well as the prospect that tax preparation firms could be forced return to the U.S. Treasury any profits they make from processing fraudulent tax refunds.

The Growing Tax Fraud MenaceValentine was a tax attorney before being appointed the chair of Utah’s tax commission, so he’s familiar with the challenges facing both the tax preparation industry as well as the tax agencies.

“I came out of the private sector and spent nearly 40 years suing the state tax commission and the IRS,” Valentine said. “Now I am that.”

Utah is actively engaged in an IRS task force made up of state, federal and industry tax experts trying to quash refund fraud. Like Alabama’s deputy tax commissioner Joe Garrett — who had a $7,700 fraudulent refund filed in his name — several of Utah’s senior tax administration officials also were victimized by ID thieves this year.

“We’ve had some of our senior people who had tax returns filed on their behalf,” Valentine said. “Of course, they had not filed them yet and we knew that they were more than a little suspicious.”

Among the steps the task force is considering is whether to mail all taxpayers an Identity Protection Personal Identification Number (IP PIN) that is tied to each taxpayer and must be included in each tax return. The IRS issues the IP PINs to taxpayers who have suffered tax return fraud. Additionally, consumers willing to swear they have been victims of identity theft can apply for a filing PIN, however the IRS is picky about granting those requests.

Even if the IRS were to switch to issuing IP PINs to all taxpayers, the agency would still run up against the thorny problem of how to verify consumers’ identity (no doubt, that challenge would be exacerbated by millions of taxpayers phoning the IRS after losing or misplacing their assigned PINs). A major focus of the working groups attention is finding better ways to authenticate people beyond merely requesting static identifiers (Social Security numbers, dates of birth) and other data that is frequently exposed in data breaches and is readily for sale on underground markets.

“They’re going to have to switch to a 2-factor authentication system, where they really strengthen the front-end of that authentication,” Valentine said of the tax preparation firms like TurboTax, which briefly shut down all state tax filing this year after a massive spike in phony refund requests put through its systems via hijacked and fraudulently created TurboTax accounts.

Valentine also made the decision to halt all Utah tax refunds around that same time.

“When we installed our [anti-fraud] analytics program, we thought we were getting a lot of false positives, so we did a bunch of back checking,” he said “While we were doing that, I made a decision to stop all refunds. For a period of two weeks Utah gave no refunds while we worked through the analytics to make sure we’d identified the nature and extent of the fraud. It turned out to be much more extensive than we’ve ever seen.”

In fact, ten times as much as any year prior, according to Valentine.

“We’ve always seen fraud where a tax practitioner will file a whole bunch of fraudulent returns, or we’ll see ID theft targeting a large employer. But this fraud wave was a little tougher, because it went across spectrum of employers, across the entire demographic of taxpayers, high low and middle income. Also, the fraud wasn’t regionalized — it was across the whole state — and [the fraudsters] didn’t seem to be selective as to who they hit. They got people of notoriety and people nobody knew. In the end, it appeared that the common factor among all of them was how you filed in 2013,” because the phony 2014 returns all included nearly identical information as the victim’s 2013 returns.

“What we saw in Utah was a population of the same information in the 2013 return into the 2014 return, with the exception of bank routing and bank account number,” Valentine said. “That’s a different fraud that we’d just never seen before.”

TurboTax’s lax security around authentication for new and existing accounts played a well-documented role in the type of fraud described by Valentine this year. But ID thieves also got help directly from the IRS this year. Late last month, the agency suspended the “get transcript” function that previously allowed taxpayers to order a copy of their previous year’s W2 information, among other data; turns out, crooks had used the service to pull tax data on more than 100,000 citizens, stealing tens of millions from the U.S. Treasury in the process. Continue reading →


8
Jun 15

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze

If you’ve been paying attention in recent years, you might have noticed that just about everyone is losing your personal data. Even if you haven’t noticed (or maybe you just haven’t actually received a breach notice), I’m here to tell you that if you’re an American, your basic personal data is already for sale. What follows is a primer on what you can do to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft as a result of all this data (s)pillage.

Click here for a primer on identity theft protection services.

Click here for a primer on identity theft protection services.

A seemingly never-ending stream of breaches at banks, healthcare providers, insurance companies and data brokers has created a robust market for thieves who sell identity data. Even without the help of mega breaches like the 80 million identities leaked in the Anthem compromise or last week’s news about 4 million records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management gone missing, crooks already have access to the information needed to open new lines of credit or file phony tax refund requests in your name.

If your response to this breachapalooza is to do what each of the breached organizations suggest — to take them up on one or two years’ worth of free credit monitoring services — you might sleep better at night but you will probably not be any more protected against crooks stealing your identity. As I discussed at length in this primer, credit monitoring services aren’t really built to prevent ID theft. The most you can hope for from a credit monitoring service is that they give you a heads up when ID theft does happen, and then help you through the often labyrinthine process of getting the credit bureaus and/or creditors to remove the fraudulent activity and to fix your credit score.

In short, if you have already been victimized by identity theft (fraud involving existing credit or debit cards is not identity theft), it might be worth paying for these credit monitoring and repair services (although more than likely, you are already eligible for free coverage thanks to a recent breach at any one of dozens of companies that have lost your information over the past year). Otherwise, I’d strongly advise you to consider freezing your credit file at the major credit bureaus. 

There is shockingly little public knowledge or education about the benefits of a security freeze, also known as a “credit freeze.” I routinely do public speaking engagements in front of bankers and other experts in the financial industry, and I’m amazed at how often I hear from people in this community who are puzzled to learn that there is even such a thing as a security freeze (to be fair, most of these people are in the business of opening new lines of credit, not blocking such activity).

Also, there is a great deal of misinformation and/or bad information about security freezes available online. As such, I thought it best to approach this subject in the form of a Q&A, which is the most direct method I know how to impart knowledge about a subject in way that is easy for readers to digest.

Q: What is a security freeze?

A: A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand. With a freeze in place on your credit file, ID thieves can apply for credit in your name all they want, but they will not succeed in getting new lines of credit in your name because few if any creditors will extend that credit without first being able to gauge how risky it is to loan to you (i.e., view your credit file). And because each credit inquiry caused by a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, the freeze also helps protect your score, which is what most lenders use to decide whether to grant you credit when you truly do want it and apply for it. 

Q: What’s involved in freezing my credit file?

A: Freezing your credit involves notifying each of the major credit bureaus that you wish to place a freeze on your credit file. This can usually be done online, but in a few cases you may need to contact one or more credit bureaus by phone or in writing. Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze or “thaw” your credit file in the event that you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Depending on your state of residence and your circumstances, you may also have to pay a small fee to place a freeze at each bureau. There are four consumer credit bureaus, including Equifax, Experian, Innovis and Trans Union

Q: How much is the fee, and how can I know whether I have to pay it?

A: The fee ranges from $0 to $15 per bureau, meaning that it can cost upwards of $60 to place a freeze at all four credit bureaus (recommended). However, in most states, consumers can freeze their credit file for free at each of the major credit bureaus if they also supply a copy of a police report and in some cases an affidavit stating that the filer believes he/she is or is likely to be the victim of identity theft. In many states, that police report can be filed and obtained online. The fee covers a freeze as long as the consumer keeps it in place. Equifax has a decent breakdown of the state laws and freeze fees/requirements. 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 →


2
Jun 15

Phony Tax Refunds: A Cash Cow for Everyone

When identity thieves filed a phony $7,700 tax refund request in the name of Joe Garrett, Alabama’s deputy tax commissioner, they didn’t get all of the money they requested. A portion of the cash went to more than a half dozen U.S. companies that each grab a slice of the fraudulent refund, including banks, payment processing firms, tax preparation companies and e-commerce giants.

treas7700

When tax scammers file a fraudulent refund request, they usually take advantage of a process called a refund transfer. That allows the third party firm that helped prepare and process the return for filing (e.g. TurboTax) to get paid for their services by deducting the amount of their fee from the refund. Effectively, this lets identity thieves avoid paying a dime to TurboTax or other providers for processing the return.

In Garrett’s case, as with no doubt countless other fraudulent returns filed this year, the thieves requested that the return be deposited into a prepaid debit card account, which they could then use as a regular debit card to pay for goods and services, and/or use at ATMs to withdraw the ill-gotten gains in cash.

What’s more, the crooks asked the government to deposit $2,000 of the $7,700 they applied for in his name to an Amazon gift card ($2,000 is the maximum allowed under the Amazon gift card program). This is just another way for thieves to hedge their bets in case the debit card to which the majority of the stolen funds gets canceled.

“There are so many people making money off of electronic transfer of funds, it’s ridiculous,” said Julie Magee, Garrett’s boss and commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Revenue. “Five different financial institutions touched the fraudulent refund they filed in Joe’s name before it went to the thieves.” Continue reading →


26
May 15

IRS: Crooks Stole Data on 100K Taxpayers Via ‘Get Transcript’ Feature

In March 2015, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that identity thieves engaged in filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) were using the IRS’s own Web site to obtain taxpayer data needed to complete the phony requests. Today, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen acknowledged that crooks used this feature to pull sensitive data on more than 100,000 taxpayers this year.

Screenshot 2015-03-29 14.22.55That March story — Sign Up at IRS.gov Before Crooks Do It For You — 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 IRS.gov, he learned that someone had already registered through the IRS’s site using his Social Security number and an unknown email address.

Koskinen was quoted today in an Associated Press story saying the IRS was alerted to the thieves when technicians noticed an increase in the number of taxpayers seeking transcripts. The story noted that the IRS said they targeted the system from February to mid-May, and that the service has been temporarily shut down. Prior to that shutdown, the IRS estimates that thieves used the data to steal up to $50 million in fraudulent refunds.

“In all, about 200,000 attempts were made from questionable email domains, with more than 100,000 of those attempts successfully clearing authentication hurdles,” the IRS said in a statement. “During this filing season, taxpayers successfully and safely downloaded a total of approximately 23 million transcripts.” Continue reading →


30
Mar 15

Sign Up at irs.gov Before Crooks Do It For You

If you’re an American and haven’t yet created an account at irs.gov, you may want to take care of that before tax fraudsters create an account in your name and steal your personal and tax data in the process.

Screenshot 2015-03-29 14.22.55Recently, KrebsOnSecurity heard from Michael Kasper, a 35-year-old reader who tried to obtain a copy of his most recent tax transcript with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Kasper said he sought the transcript after trying to file his taxes through the desktop version of TurboTax, and being informed by TurboTax that the IRS had rejected the request because his return had already been filed.

Kasper said he phoned the IRS’s identity theft hotline (800-908-4490) and was told a direct deposit was being made that very same day for his tax refund — a request made with his Social Security number and address but to be deposited into a bank account that he didn’t recognize.

“Since I was alerting them that this transaction was fraudulent, their privacy rules prevented them from telling me any more information, such as the routing number and account number of that deposit,” Kasper said. “They basically admitted this was to protect the privacy of the criminal, not because they were going to investigate right away. In fact, they were very clear that the matter would not be investigated further until a fraud affidavit and accompanying documentation were processed by mail.”

In the following weeks, Kasper contacted the IRS, who told him they had no new information on his case. When he tried to get a transcript of the fraudulent return using the “Get Transcript” function on IRS.gov, he learned that someone had already registered through the IRS’s site using his Social Security number and an unknown email address.

“When I called the IRS to fix this, and spent another hour on hold, they explained they could not tell me what the email address was due to privacy regulations,” Kasper recalled. “They also said they could not change the email address, all they could do was ban access to eServices for my account, which they did. It was something at least.”

FORM 4506

Undeterred, Kasper researched further and discovered that he could still obtain a copy of the fraudulent return by filling out the IRS Form 4506 (PDF) and paying a $50 processing fee. Several days later, the IRS mailed Kasper a photocopy of the fraudulent return filed in his name — complete with the bank routing and account number that received the $8,936 phony refund filed in his name.

“That’s right, $50 just for the right to see my own return,” Kasper said. “And once again the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, because it cost me just $50 to get them to ignore their own privacy rules. The most interesting thing about this strange rule is that the IRS also refuses to look at the account data itself until it is fully investigated. Banks are required by law to report suspicious refund deposits, but the IRS does not even bother to contact banks to let them know a refund deposit was reported fraudulent, at least in the case of individual taxpayers who call, confirm their identity and report it, just like I did.”

Kasper said the transcript indicates the fraudsters filed his refund request using the IRS web site’s own free e-file website for those with incomes over $60,000. It also showed the routing number for First National Bank of Pennsylvania and the checking account number of the individual who got the deposit plus the date that they filed: January 31, 2015.

The transcript suggests that the fraudsters who claimed his refund had done so by copying all of the data from his previous year’s W2, and by increasing the previous year’s amounts slightly. Kasper said he can’t prove it, but he believes the scammers obtained that W2 data directly from the IRS itself, after creating an account at the IRS portal in his name (but using a different email address) and requesting his transcript.

“The person who submitted it somehow accessed my tax return from the previous year 2013 in order to list my employer and salary from that year, 2013, then use it on the 2014 return, instead,” Kasper said. “In addition, they also submitted a corrected W-2 that increased the withholding amount by exactly $6,000 to increase their total refund due to $8,936.”

MONEY MULING

On Wednesday, March 18, 2015, Kasper contacted First National Bank of Pennsylvania whose routing number was listed in the phony tax refund request, and reached their head of account security. That person confirmed a direct deposit by the IRS for $8,936.00 was made on February 9, 2015 into an individual checking account specifying Kasper’s full name and SSN in the metadata with the deposit.

“She told me that she could also see transactions were made at one or more branches in the city of Williamsport, PA to disburse or withdraw those funds and that several purchases were made by debit card in the city of Williamsport as well, so that at this point a substantial portion of the funds were gone,” Kasper said. “She further told me that no one from the IRS had contacted her bank to raise any questions about this account, despite my fraud report filed February 9, 2015.”

The head of account security at the bank stated that she would be glad to cooperate with the Williamsport Police if they provided the required legal request to allow her to release the name, address, and account details. The bank officer offered Kasper her office phone number and cell phone to share with the cops. The First National employee also mentioned that the suspect lived in the city of Williamsport, PA, and that this individual seemed to still be using the account.

Kasper said the local police in his New York hometown hadn’t bothered to respond to his request for assistance, but that the lieutenant at the Williamsport police department who heard his story took pity on him and asked him to write an email about the incident to his captain, which Kasper said he sent later that morning.

Just two hours later, he received a call from an investigator who had been assigned to the case. The detective then interviewed the individual who held the account the same day and told Kasper that the bank’s fraud department was investigating and had asked the person to return the cash.

“My tax refund fraud case had gone from stuck in the mud to an open case, almost overnight,” Kasper sad. “Or at least it seemed to be that simple. It turned out to be much more complex.”

For starters, the woman who owned the bank account that received his phony refund — a student at a local Pennsylvania university — said she got the transfer after responding to a Craigslist ad for a moneymaking opportunity.

Kasper said the detective learned that money was deposited into her account, and that she sent the money out to locations in Nigeria via Western Union wire transfer, keeping some as a profit, and apparently never suspecting that she might be doing something illegal.

“She has so far provided a significant amount of information, and I’m inclined to believe her story,” Kasper said. “Who would be crazy enough to deposit a fraudulent tax refund in their own checking account, as opposed to an untraceable debit card they could get at a convenience store. At the same time, wouldn’t somebody who could pull this off also have an explanation like this ready?”

The woman in question, whose name is being withheld from this story, declined multiple requests to speak with KrebsOnSecurity, threatening to file harassment claims if I didn’t stop trying to contact her. Nevertheless, she appears to have been an unwitting — if not unwilling — money mule in a scam that seeks to recruit the unwary for moneymaking schemes. 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 →