Tag Archives: tax return

IRS Is Stepping Up Anti-Fraud Measures

The Internal Revenue Service is taking as long as 21 days to review tax returns, according to research from fraud prevention vendor iovation, a clear sign that Uncle Sam has stepped up anti-fraud measures.

Even so, tax return scams that pivot off stolen identity data continue to rise for the third consecutive tax season. The latest twist: Tax scammers are increasingly targeting vulnerable populations—low-income, children, seniors and homeless—as well as prisoners, overseas military personnel and the deceased, according to an FBI alert.

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And criminals have gotten very creative about conducting phishing campaigns to fool individual consumers—and key employees at targeted companies—into handing over personal tax-related information, useful for filing fake returns.

Tax software vulnerable

The FBI also says criminals often use online tax software to commit the fraud. That’s particularly troubling, considering what the Online Trust Alliance found in a recent audit of free e-filing services approved by the IRS. Of the 13 services audited, about half failed somewhat basic security protocols, such as email authentication and SSL configurations.

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Craig Spiezle, Online Trust Alliance executive director

Craig Spiezle, executive director of Online Trust Alliance, says some of the vulnerabilities, such as unsecure sites, are obvious to the casual person, let alone criminals.

“These sites are such high targets, you’d expect 100% of these to be like Fort Knox,” he says. “There’s no perfect security, but you would expect not to see (simple) vulnerabilities.”

Some e-filing sites, for example, had simple server misconfigurations or didn’t have current secure protocols; one provider failed to adopt an extended validation (EV) SSL certificate, leaving it open to spoofing.

Although not everyone is eligible for the free e-filing services that OTA audited, Spiezle says many of the paid e-filing services are run by some of the same parent companies, and thus use much of the same lightly protected infrastructure. He says it would be fair to assume that many of the paid e-filing sites would have the same 46% failure rate as the free e-filing services audited by OTA.

Personal information trades on black market

Even if cyber criminals don’t use stolen tax-related data for filing fraudulent returns, that information is highly valuable on the black market. Spiezle points out that it’s the only place where this type of rich information—such as income, employer, number of dependents, Social Security numbers and even bank accounts—is available all in one swoop.

“All that data that’s amassed is a treasure chest,” he says. “If you want to create a persona of someone’s identity, you have all the data in one place.”

The IRS expects that, this year, 80% of the estimated 150 million individual tax returns will be prepared with tax software and e-filed—and that’s music to fraudsters’ ears.

One typical avenue for cyber thieves is to file returns as early as possible, claiming refunds as large as $1,000 to $4,000 on untraceable prepaid debit cards. They can fly under the radar by filing very generic returns, and those multiple refunds turn into a lucrative operation.

“They have immediate access to that cash, as opposed to credit card fraud where the value is not as high and the delivery is through a retailer, so they have to figure out what to do with those goods,” says Scott Olson, vice president of product at iovation, a provider of device authentication and mobile security solutions.

Phishing, malware skyrocket

According to the Government Accountability Office, the IRS prevented $24 billion in fraudulent tax refunds related to identity theft in 2013, while paying out $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds that it didn’t discover until a year later. And the number of fraud attempts is on the rise: As of March 25, the IRS reported a 400% increase in phishing and malware incidents related to the 2016 tax season.

Email phishing campaigns include links to web pages requesting personal information, useful for filing fake returns.

These fake pages often imitate an official-looking website, such as IRS.gov or an e-filing service, and also may carry malware, which can turn over control of the victim’s computer to the attacker. This January alone, the IRS counted 1,026 email-related fraud incidents, compared with 254 a year earlier.

Phishing scams also are targeting employers—because criminals know that’s where they can find large caches of income-related information. One growing trend is the so-called business email compromise (also known as “CEO fraud”), a variation of spear phishing. The phisher does deep research on a targeted company, then impersonates a senior executive to get a subordinate to do something.

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Vidur Apparao, chief technology officer at Agari, which offers an email security platform, says malicious attachments and URLs compromised the bulk of spear phishing emails in the past. But what his company is seeing now is phishing ruses aimed at specific employees that leverage trust to get the recipient to take a specific action. Such attacks do not carry any viral attachments or bad URLs that can be detected. Yet they have proven to be very effective at duping the recipient into forwarding files containing employees’ W2 forms.

“Criminals are leveraging the cloud at three separate points, in ways they couldn’t before: developing social engineering content, sending out spear phishing attacks and getting back a response,” he says.

Basic security helps

According to the OTA, 92% of the publicly reported breaches in 2015 could have been prevented. Take email authentication. It’s almost a basic security tool that prevents emails from being spoofed. Those OTA-audited e-filing services that didn’t use it are contributing to the breaches.

“The lack of email authentication or the slow adoption in some cases has led to the prevalence of this easy type of attack,” Apparao says.

Spiezle says people need to be aware that emails and other tactics are becoming more sophisticated, and protect themselves accordingly.

“The problem is that we are all moving so fast, and we have all these devices and desktops—we are multitasking,” he says. “And the criminals play off that, and they’re getting more precise.”

This article was written by Third Certainty’s Rodika Tollefsen.

Healthcare Breaches: How to Respond

The news of a data breach at Premera Blue Cross, following on the heels of the recent announcements of large-scale,  healthcare breaches at Anthem, is another reminder that employers and other health plan sponsors, fiduciaries and insurers need to take immediate steps to assess and tighten up their privacy, data security and data breach compliance and risk management.

Health plans and their employers, administrators, insurers and other vendors and service providers need to take immediate steps to conduct documented investigations, provide mandated breach notifications and take other actions that are required by the Privacy, Security & Breach Notification Rules imposed by the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act and other potentially applicable laws.

Employers or other plan sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers also may be subject to additional responsibilities under the fiduciary responsibility requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Internal Revenue Code and a host of other laws. Whether they are subject to the additional responsibilities depends on the scope of data affected and their involvement with the affected plans,

Insurance industry or other vendors providing services to these plans also may face specific responsibilities under applicable insurance, health care, federal or state identity theft, privacy or data security or other federal or state laws. (See, e.g., Restated HIPAA Regulations Require Health Plans to Tighten Privacy Policies and Practices; Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security Beyond; HIPAA Compliance & Breach Data Shares Helpful Lessons for Health Plans, Providers and Business Associates.)

The need for prompt assessment and action is not necessarily limited to health plans and organizations sponsoring, administering or doing business with the plans involved in the Premera or Anthem breaches. The report of these and other healthcare breaches, as well as recent reports of identity theft and other fraud affecting federal tax returns and other large data breach reports involving retailers and other prominent businesses are spurring recognition of the large risks and need for greater scrutiny and accountability to business collection, use and protection of sensitive personal and other data.

Of course, the risk is exploding largely in response to the continued evolution of electronic payment and other business operating systems coupled with the emergence of data harvesting and other capabilities at virtually every U.S. business. Cyber criminals seem to always be one step ahead of business and government in leveraging these emerging opportunities for their criminal purposes.

Everyone from the Internal Revenue Service, other federal and state government agencies and private business partners are pushing for electronic transactions and data. So, businesses are conducting more and more transactions electronically containing business and individual tax information, personal financial information, personal health information, confidential business and personal information. Meanwhile, “big data” and other business and marketing gurus also encourage businesses to use data from customers, prospects and other sources to benefit marketing and other parts of the business.

As these practices have taken hold over the past decade, data breaches, other cyber crimes and risks have also grown. Privacy, identity theft and other cyber crimes have led federal and state lawmakers to enact an ever-growing list of notice, consent, disclosure, security and other laws and regulations, including the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA),the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Privacy and Security Rules of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and state identity theft, data security and data breach and other electronic privacy and security laws.

As notorious breaches occur and judgments, penalties and other costs soar, federal and state regulators are looking at the need for expanded rules and penalties. (See Cybercrime Enforcement Statistics; DOJ Enforcement Priorities and Statistics.) Widening data privacy and security concerns from incidents like the recent reports of breaches at Anthem and elsewhere have prompted Congress and state regulators to hold hearings to consider the need for added reforms, and the Federal Trade Commission has just announced plans to host a workshop on Nov. 16, 2015, to look at the privacy issues around the tracking of consumers’ activities across their different devices for advertising and marketing purposes.

While these and other legal and enforcement developments promise new liabilities and expenses, the business losses and customer and business partner implications experienced by Target, Anthem and other businesses illustrate the severe business consequences that inevitably result if a business appears to have failed to take customer privacy or other data security concerns seriously.

The notorious Target hacking data breach event is illustrative. Target reported in late 2013 that credit and debit card thieves stole the name, address, email address and phone number from the credit and debit card records of around 70 million Target shoppers between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, 2013. After announcing the breach, Target reported a 46% drop in profits in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with the year before. The company announced plans to invest $100 million upgrading its payment terminals to support Chip-and-PIN-enabled cards and millions of dollars more in rectification efforts. Subsequently, Target’s losses have continued to mount, and it now faces lawsuits and other enforcement actions as a result of the breach.

Beyond a general need to tighten their defenses, health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and vendors have specific obligations that require immediate, well-documented action when an actual or potential breach happens. The Privacy, Security and Breach Notification requirements of HIPAA require that health plans adopt specific policies and maintain and administer specific safeguards. In the event of a breach, these rules require that the health plan, usually acting through its fiduciaries, and affected service providers that qualify as business associates both investigate and redress the breach, as well as provide specific notification as soon as possible, usually no later than 30 days after the health plan knows or has reason to know of the breach. Significant civil and even criminal penalties can apply.

Beyond the specific requirements of HIPAA, employers and other plan sponsors and others involved in the maintenance and administration of the health plan or the selection and oversight of its vendors often may have less-realized responsibilities. As health plan data often includes payroll and other tax data, employers, there may be specific responsibilities under the Internal Revenue Code or other laws. To the extent that the plan sponsor or another party is named as the plan administrator or otherwise exercises control over the selection of the insurer or other plan vendor or other plan operations, the fiduciary obligations of ERISA also may require a prudent investigation and other action. Brokers, insurers, third party administrators, preferred provider organizations or other managed care providers and others doing business with the health plan also may have specific responsibilities under state insurance, health care, data breach and identity theft or other laws. Under the provisions of most of these laws, leaving it to the insurer or other vendor involved in the breach generally will not suffice to fulfill applicable legal responsibilities, much less allay the fears of plan members, employees, healthcare providers and others involved with the health plan.

In the face of these developments, health plans and their sponsors, fiduciaries and others working with them must take immediate action in response to breaches. Businesses also should check the adequacy and defensibility of their current overall data collection, use and security practices while remaining ever-vigilant for new requirements, as well as weaknesses in their own practices.

Businesses need to build their defenses in anticipation of breaches both to withstand government and private litigation and enforcement, and the judgment of public opinion.