Posts Tagged: turbotax

Mar 16

Phishing Victims Muddle Tax Fraud Fight

Many U.S. citizens are bound to experience delays in getting their tax returns processed this year, thanks largely to more stringent controls enacted by Uncle Sam and the states to block fraudulent tax refund requests filed by identity thieves. A steady drip of corporate data breaches involving phished employee W-2 information is adding to the backlog, as is an apparent mass adoption by ID thieves of professional tax services for processing large numbers of phony refund requests.

According to data released this week by anti-fraud company iovation, the Internal Revenue Service is taking up to three times longer to review 2015 tax returns compared to past years.

Julie Magee, commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Revenue,  said much of the delay this year at the state level is likely due to new “fraud filters” the states have put in place with Gentax, a return processing and auditing system used by about half of U.S. state revenue departments. If the states can’t outright deny a suspicious refund request, they’ll very often deny the requested electronic bank deposit and issue a paper check to the taxpayer’s known address instead.

“Many states decided they weren’t going to start paying refunds until March 1, and on our side we’ve been using all our internal fraud resources and tools to analyze the tax return before we even put it in the queue,” Magee said. “That’s delaying refunds nationwide for the IRS and the states, and it’s pretty much going to also mean a helluva lot of paper checks are going out this year.”

The added fraud filters that states are employing take advantage of data elements shared for the first time this tax season by the major online tax preparation firms such as TurboTax. The filters look for patterns known to be associated with phony refund requests, such how quickly the return was filed, or whether the same Internet address was seen completing multiple returns.

Magee said some of the states have been adding new fraud filters nearly every time they learn of another big breach involving large numbers of stolen or phished employee W2 data, a huge problem this tax season that is forcing dozens of companies large and small to disclose data breaches over the past few weeks.

“Every time we turn around getting a phone call about another breach,” Magee said. “Because of all the different breaches, the states and the IRS have been taking extreme measures to filter, filter, filter. And each time we’d get news of an additional breach, we’d start over, reprogram our fraud filters, and re-assess those returns that were not processed fully yet and those waiting to be processed.”

Magee said the Gentax software assigns each tax return a score for “wage confidence” and “identity confidence,” and that usually fraudulent tax refund requests have high wage confidence but low — if any — identity confidence. That’s because the fraudsters are filing refund requests on taxpayers for whom they already have stolen W2 information. The identity confidence in these cases is low often because the fraudsters are asking to have the money electronically deposited into an account that can’t be directly tied to the taxpayer, or they have incorrectly supplied some of the victim’s data.

“I have zero confidence that filings which match this pattern are legitimate,” Magee said. “It’s early still, but our new filtering system seems to be working. But it’s still a big unknown about the percentage of fraudulent refunds we’re not stopping.”


athookMost states didn’t start processing returns until after March 1, which is exactly when a flood of data breaches related to phished employee W2 data began washing up. As KrebsOnSecurity first warned in mid-February, thieves have been sending targeted phishing emails to human resources and finance employees at countless organizations, spoofing a message from the CEO requesting all employee W2’s in PDF format.

In Magee’s own state, W2 phishers hauled in tax data on an estimated 180 employees of ISCO Industries in Huntsville, and some 425 employees at the EWTN Global Catholic Network in Irondale, Ala. But those are just the ones that have been made public. Magee’s office only learned of those breaches after employees at the affected organizations reached out to journalists who then wrote about the compromises.

Over the past week, KrebsOnSecurity similarly has heard from employees at a broad range of organizations that appear to have fallen victim to W2 phishing scams, including some 28,000 employees of the market research giant Kantar Group; 17,000+ employees of Sprouts Farmer’s Market; call center software provider Aspect; computer backup software maker AcronisKids Dental Kare in Los Angeles; Century Fence, a fencing company in Wisconsin; Nation’s Lending Corporation, a mortgage lending firm in Independent, Ohio; QTI Group, a Wisconsin-based human resources consulting company; and the jousting-and-feasting entertainment company Medieval Times. Continue reading →

Dec 15

Don’t Be a Victim of Tax Refund Fraud in ’16

With little more than a month to go before the start of the 2016 tax filing season, the IRS and the states are hunkering down for an expected slugfest with identity thieves who make a living requesting fraudulent tax refunds on behalf of victims. Here’s what you need to know going into January to protect you and your family.

The Growing Tax Fraud MenaceThe good news is that the states and Uncle Sam have got a whole new bag of technological tricks up their sleeves this coming tax season. The bad news is ID thieves are already testing those defenses, and will be working against a financially strapped federal agency that’s been forced to cede much of its ability to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

Tax refund fraud affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of U.S. citizens annually. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually due a refund from the IRS.

By all accounts, the IRS has improved at blocking phony refund requests. The agency estimates it prevented $24.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in 2013. Trouble is, it paid out some $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds that year that it later determined were bogus, and experts say that is only the fraud the agency knows about, and the true number is likely much higher annually.

Perhaps in response to the IRS’s increasing ability to separate phony returns from legitimate ones, crooks last year massively focused on filing bogus refund requests with the 50 U.S states. To head off a recurrence of that trend in the 2016 filing season, the states and the IRS have hammered out an agreement to examine more than 20 new data elements collected by online providers like TurboTax and H&R Block.

Those new data elements include checking for the repetitive use of the same Internet address to rapidly file multiple returns, and reviewing computer device information (browser user agent string, cookies e.g.) tied to the return’s origin. Another check involves measuring the time it takes to file a return; fraudsters involved in tax refund fraud tend to breeze through returns in just a few minutes because they are generally copying and pasting information into the tax forms, or relying on an automated program to do it for them.

The hope is that the these new checks will let investigators more accurately flag suspicious refund requests processed by tax preparation firms, which also have agreed to beef up lax security around customer accounts. Under the agreement, online providers will enforce:

  • new password standards to include a minimum of eight characters, with upper, lowercase, alphanumerical and special characters;
  • a lock-out feature that blocks users with too many unsuccessful login attempts;
  • the addition of three security questions;
  • some sort of out-of-band verification for email addresses — sending an email or text to the customer with a personal identification number (PIN).

Julie Magee, Alabama’s chief tax administrator, said the state/IRS task force opted not to disclose all 20 of the data elements they will be collecting from tax prep firms.

“The thieves are going to figure these out on their own, and they’re already testing our defenses,” Magee told KrebsOnSecurity. “We don’t want to do anything to make that easier for them.”


Whether or not we see an increase in tax refund fraud next year, one thing seems certain: the IRS will prosecute far fewer of the crooks involved. Congress has persistently underfunded the IRS, and budget cuts have pushed prosecutions of identity thieves to a new low. According to the IRS’s 2015 Annual Report, IRS identity theft criminal investigations are down almost 50 percent since 2013.


Tax fraudsters were so aggressive last year that they figured out how to steal consumer identities directly from the agency itself. In August 2015, the IRS disclosed that crooks abused the “Get Transcript” feature on its Web site to steal Social Security numbers and information from previous years’ tax filings on more than 334,000 Americans.

The IRS has responded to the problem of tax ID theft partly by offering Identity Protection PINs (IP PINs) to affected taxpayers that must be supplied on the following year’s tax application before the IRS will accept the return. However, consumers still have to request an IP PIN by applying for one at the agency’s site, or by mailing in form 14039 (PDF).

Incredibly, the process that thieves abused to steal tax transcripts from 334,000 taxpayers this year from the IRS’s site also works to fraudulently obtain a consumer’s IP PIN. In fact, the following redacted screen shot from a notorious cybercrime forum shows a seasoned tax fraudster teaching would-be scammers how to use the IRS’s site to obtain a victim’s IP PIN.


Continue reading →

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, 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.


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 →

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 →

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.


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 →

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 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, 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 →

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.


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 →

Mar 15

Intuit Failed at ‘Know Your Customer’ Basics

Intuit, the makers of TurboTax, recently introduced several changes to beef up the security of customer accounts following a spike in tax refund fraud at the state and federal level. Unfortunately, those changes don’t go far enough. Here’s a look at some of the missteps that precipitated this mess, and what the company can do differently going forward.

dyot copy2

As The Wall Street Journal noted in a story this week, competitors H&R Block and TaxAct say they haven’t seen a similar surge in fraud this year. Perhaps the bad guys are just picking on the industry leader. But with 29 million customers last year — far more than H&R Block or TaxAct (which each had about seven million) — TurboTax should also be leading the industry in security.

Keep in mind that none of the security steps described below are going to stop fraud alone. But taken together, they do or would provide more robust security for TurboTax accounts, and significantly raise the costs for criminals engaged in this type of fraud.


Intuit fails to take basic steps to validate key account information, such as email addresses and mobile numbers, and these failures have limited the company’s ability to enact stricter account security measures. In fact, TurboTax still does not require new users to verify their email address, a basic security precaution that even random Internet forums which don’t collect nearly as much sensitive data require of all new users.

Last month, KrebsOnSecurity featured an in-depth story that stemmed from information provided by two former Intuit security employees who accused the company of making millions of dollars knowingly processing tax refund requests filed by cybercriminals. Those individuals shared a great deal about Intuit’s internal discussions on how best to handle a spike in account takeovers and fraudsters using stolen personal information to file tax refund requests on unwitting consumers.

Both whistleblowers said the lack of email verification routinely led to bizarre scenarios in which customers would complain of seeing other peoples’ tax data in their accounts. These were customers who’d forgotten their passwords and entered their email address at the site to receive a password reset link, only to find their email address tied to multiple identities that belonged to other victims of stolen identity refund fraud.

In mid-February, Intuit announced that it would begin the process of prompting all users to validate their accounts, either by validating their email address, answering a set of knowledge-based authentication questions, or entering a code sent to their mobile phone.

In an interview today, Intuit’s leadership sidestepped questions about why the company still does not validate email addresses. But TurboTax Chief Information Security Officer Indu Kodukula did say TurboTax will no longer display multiple profiles tied to a single email address when users attempt to reset their passwords by supplying an email address.

“We had an option where when you entered an email address, we’d show you a list of user IDs that were associated with that address,” Kodukula said. “We’ve removed that option, so now if you try to do password recovery, you have to go back to the email associated with you.” Continue reading →

Feb 15

TurboTax’s Anti-Fraud Efforts Under Scrutiny

Two former security employees at Intuit — the makers of the popular tax preparation software and service TurboTax — allege that the company has made millions of dollars knowingly processing state and federal tax refunds filed by cybercriminals. Intuit says it leads the industry in voluntarily reporting suspicious returns, and that ultimately it is up to the Internal Revenue Service to develop industry-wide requirements for tax preparation firms to follow in their fight against the multi-billion dollar problem of tax refund fraud.

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity published an exclusive interview with Indu Kodukula, Intuit’s chief information security officer. Kodukula explained that customer password re-use was a major cause of a spike this tax season in fraudulent state tax refund requests. The increase in phony state refund requests prompted several state revenue departments to complain to their state attorneys general. In response, TurboTax temporarily halted all state filings while it investigated claims of a possible breach. The company resumed state filing shortly after that pause, saying it could find no evidence that customers’ TurboTax credentials had been stolen from its network.

Kodukula noted that although the incidence of hijacked, existing TurboTax accounts was rapidly growing, the majority of refund scams the company has to deal with stem from “stolen identity refund fraud” or SIRF. In SIRF, the thieves gather pieces of data about taxpayers from outside means — through phishing attacks or identity theft services in the underground, for example — then create accounts at TurboTax in the victims’ names and file fraudulent tax refund claims with the IRS.

Kodukula cast Intuit as an industry leader in helping the IRS identify and ultimately deny suspicious tax returns. But that portrayal only tells part of the story, according to two former Intuit employees who until recently each held crucial security positions helping the company identify and fight tax fraud. Both individuals described a company that has intentionally dialed back efforts to crack down on SIRF so as not to lose market share when fraudsters began shifting their business to Intuit’s competitors.

Robert Lee, a security business partner at Intuit’s consumer tax group until his departure from the company in July 2014, said he and his team at Intuit developed sophisticated fraud models to help Intuit quickly identify and close accounts that were being used by crooks to commit massive amounts of SIRF fraud.

But Lee said he was mystified when Intuit repeatedly refused to adopt some basic policies that would make it more costly and complicated for fraudsters to abuse the company’s service for tax refund fraud, such as blocking the re-use of the same Social Security number across a certain number of TurboTax accounts, or preventing the same account from filing more than a small number of tax returns.

“If I sign up for an account and file tax refund requests on 100 people who are not me, it’s obviously fraud,” Lee said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “We found literally millions of accounts that were 100 percent used only for fraud. But management explicitly forbade us from either flagging the accounts as fraudulent, or turning off those accounts.

The allegations surface just days after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said his panel will be holding hearings on reports about a spike in fraudulent filings through TurboTax and elsewhere. The House Ways and Means Committee is reportedly looking into the matter and has held bipartisan staff-level discussions with the IRS and Intuit.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it received 332,646 identity theft complaints in the calendar year 2014, and that almost one-third of them — the largest portion — were tax-related identity theft complaints. Tax identity theft has been the largest ID theft category for the last five years.

According to a recent report (PDF) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the IRS estimated it prevented $24.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in 2013.  Unfortunately, the IRS also paid $5.8 billion that year for refund requests later determined to be fraud. The GAO noted that because of the difficulties in knowing the amount of undetected fraud, the actual amount could far exceed those estimates.


Lee said the scammers who hijack existing TurboTax accounts most often will use stolen credit cards to pay the $25-$50 TurboTax fee for processing and sending the refund request to the IRS.

But he said the crooks perpetrating SIRF typically force the IRS — and, by extension, U.S. taxpayers — to cover the fee for their bogus filings. That’s because most SIRF filings take advantage of what’s known in the online tax preparation business as a ‘refund transfer’, which deducts TurboTax’s filing fee from the total amount of the fraudulent refund request. If the IRS then approves the fraudulent return, TurboTax gets paid.

“The reason fraudsters love this system is because they don’t even have to use stolen credit cards to do it,” Lee said. “What’s really going on here is that the fraud business is actually profitable for Intuit.”

Lee confirmed Kodukula’s narrative that Intuit is an industry leader in sending the IRS regular reports about tax returns that appear suspicious. But he said the company eventually scaled back those reports after noticing that the overall fraud the IRS was reporting wasn’t decreasing as a result of Intuit’s reporting: Fraudsters were simply taking their business to Intuit’s competitors.

“We noticed the IRS started taking action, and because of this, we started to see not only our fraud numbers but also our revenue go down before the peak of tax season a couple of years ago,” Lee recalled. “When we stopped or delayed sending those fraud numbers, we saw the fraud and our revenue go back up.

Lee said that early on, the reports on returns that Intuit’s fraud teams flagged as bogus were sent immediately to the IRS.

“Then, there was a time period where we didn’t deliver that information at all,” he said. “And then at one point there was a two-week delay added between the time the information was ready and the time it was submitted to the IRS. There was no technical reason for that delay, but I can only speculate what the real justification for that was.”

KrebsOnSecurity obtained a copy of a recording made of an internal Intuit conference call on Oct. 14, 2014, in which Michael Lyons, TurboTax’s deputy general counsel, describes the risks of the company being overly aggressive — relative to its competitors — in flagging suspicious tax returns for the IRS.

“As you can imagine, the bad guys being smart and savvy, they saw this and noticed it, they just went somewhere else,” Lyons said in the recording. “The amount of fraudulent activity didn’t change. The landscape didn’t change. It was like squeezing a balloon. They recognized that TurboTax returns were getting stopped at the door. So they said, ‘We’ll just go over to H&R Block, to TaxSlayer or TaxAct, or whatever.’ And all of a sudden we saw what we call ‘multi-filer activity’ had completely dropped off a cliff but the amount that the IRS reported coming through digital channels and through their self reported fraud network was not changing at all. The bad guys had just gone from us to others.”

That recording was shared by Shane MacDougall, formerly a principal security engineer at Intuit. MacDougall resigned from the company last week and filed an official whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that the company routinely placed profits ahead of ethics. MacDougall submitted the recording in his filing with the SEC.

“Complainant repeatedly raised issues with managers, directors, and even [a senior vice president] of the company to try to rectify ongoing fraud, but was repeatedly rebuffed and told Intuit couldn’t do anything that would ‘hurt the numbers’,” MacDougall wrote in his SEC filing. “Complainant repeatedly offered solutions to help stop the fraud, but was ignored.”


For its part, Intuit maintains that it is well out in front of its competitors in voluntarily reporting to the IRS refund requests that the company has flagged as suspicious. The company also stresses that it has done so even though the IRS still has not promulgated rules that require TurboTax and its competitors to report suspicious returns  — or even how to report such activity. Intuit executives say they went to the IRS three years ago to request specific authority to share that information. The IRS did not respond to requests for comment.

Intuit officials declined to address Lyons’ recorded comments specifically, although they did confirm that a company attorney led an employee WebEx meeting on the date the recording was made. But David Williams, Intuit’s chief tax officer, said what’s missing from the recorded conversation excerpted above is that Intuit has been at the forefront of asking the IRS to propose industry standards that every industry player can follow — requests that have so far gone unheeded.

“We have led the industry in making suspicious activity reports, and I’d venture to say that virtually all of the returns that Mr. Lee is quoted as referring to appear in our suspicious activity reports and are stopped by the IRS,” Williams said. “Whatever else Mr. Lee may have seen, I’m not buying the premise that somehow there was a profit motive in it for us.”

Robert Lanesey, Inuit’s chief communications officer, said Intuit doesn’t make a penny on tax filings that are ultimately rejected by the IRS.

“Revenue that comes from reports included in our suspicious activity reports to the IRS has dropped precipitously as we have changed and improved our reporting mechanisms,” Lanesey said. “When it comes to market share, it doesn’t count toward our market share unless it’s a successful return. We’ve gotten better and we’ve gotten more accurate, but it’s not about money.”

Williams added that it is not up to Intuit to block returns from being filed, and that it is the IRS’s sole determination whether to process a given refund request.

“We will flag them as suspicious, but we do not get to determine if a return is fraud,” Williams said. “It’s the IRS’s responsibility and ultimately they make that decision. What I will tell you is that of the ones we report as suspicious, the IRS rejects a very high percentage, somewhere in the 80-90 percent range.”

Earlier this month, Intuit CEO Brad Smith sent a letter to the commissioner of the IRS,  noting that while Intuit sends reports to the IRS when it sees patterns of suspicious behavior, the government has been limited in the types of information it can share with parties, including tax-preparation firms.

“The IRS could be the convener to bring the States together to help drive common standards adoption,” Smith wrote, offering the assistance of Intuit staff members “to work directly with the IRS and the States in whatever ways may be of assistance…as the fight against fraud goes forward.”


Lee and MacDougall both said Intuit’s official approach to fighting fraud is guided by a policy of zero tolerance for so-called “false positives” — the problem of incorrectly flagging a legitimate customer refund request as suspicious, and possibly incurring the double whammy of a delay in the customer’s refund and an inquiry by the IRS. This is supported by audio recordings of conference calls between Intuit’s senior executives that were shared with KrebsOnSecurity.

“We protect the sanctity of the customer experience and hold it as inviolate,” Intuit’s General
Counsel Michael Lyons can be heard saying on a recorded October 2014 internal conference call. “We do everything we can to organize the best screening program we can, but we avoid false positives at all costs. Because getting a legitimate taxpayer ensnared in the ‘you’re a bad guy’ area with the IRS is hell. Once your return gets flagged as suspicious, rejected and the IRS starts investigating, you’re not in a good place. More than 50 percent of people out there are living paycheck to paycheck, and when this is the biggest paycheck of the year for them, they can’t afford to get erroneously flagged as fraud and have to prove to the IRS who they are so that they can get that legitimate refund that they were expecting months ago.”

On the same conference call, MacDougall can be heard asking Lyons why the company wouldn’t want to use security as a way to set the company apart from its competitors in the online tax preparation industry.

Continue reading →