IRS slowing tax refunds to fight fraud as scams surge
Lax security, identity theft allow cyber thieves to file bogus paperwork, collect millions
By Rodika Tollefson, ThirdCertainty
The Internal Revenue Service is taking up to 21 days to review tax returns, according to research from fraud prevention vendor iovation, a clear sign that Uncle Sam has stepped up antifraud 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.
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 percent 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 percent failure rate as the free e-filing services audited by OTA.
Personal info 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 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 percent 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 percent 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 to 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.
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 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 percent of the publicly reported breaches in 2015 could have been prevented. Take email authentication as an example. 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 those trends.
“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.”
More stories related to tax fraud:
Beat scammers to your IRS refund check
Have you filed? Here’s a tax fraud survival guide
Cloud-based backups can leave taxes, other private data exposed