Last month, the United States (US) Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a warning to US taxpayers that cyber criminals are increasing their efforts to steal more detailed financial information from taxpayers in order to provide a more detailed, realistic tax return and better impersonate legitimate taxpayers. These efforts include targeting tax professionals, human resource departments, businesses, and other enterprises that store large amounts of sensitive financial information. To mitigate against this threat, the IRS recommended that taxpayers and businesses that store taxpayer information take three steps:
- Use Security Software. Use security software with firewall and anti-virus protections, and ensure the security software is always turned on and can automatically update. Encrypt sensitive files stored electronically, such as tax records, and use strong and unique passwords for each account.
- Watch Out For Scams. Recognize and avoid phishing emails, threatening calls and texts from individuals posing as legitimate organizations, such as banks or credit card companies, or even the IRS. Do not click on links or download attachments from unknown or suspicious emails.
- Protect Personal Data. Don't routinely carry Social Security cards and make sure tax records are secure. Shop at reputable online retailers. Treat personal information like cash – don't leave it lying around.
Recently, the IRS issued a specific warning of a quickly growing scam involving erroneous tax refunds being deposited into taxpayer bank accounts. Specifically, after stealing client data from tax professionals and filing fraudulent tax returns, cyber criminals are using taxpayers' real bank accounts for the deposits and then using various tactics to reclaim the refund from taxpayers. In one version of the scam, criminals posing as debt collection agency officials acting on behalf of the IRS contact taxpayers to say a refund was deposited in error, and ask the taxpayers to forward the money to their collection agency. In another version, the taxpayer who receives the erroneous refund gets an automated call with a recorded voice saying the person is from the IRS. That person then threatens the taxpayer with criminal fraud charges, an arrest warrant and a "blacklisting" of their Social Security Number. The recorded voice gives the taxpayer a case number and a telephone number to call to return the refund.
In its new warning, the IRS repeats its call for tax professionals to increase the security of sensitive client tax and financial files, and outlines steps impacted individuals and enterprises may follow in the wake of a breach, including those outlined in Tax Topic Number 161-Returning an Erroneous Refund and the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft.
These new threats highlight the way cyber criminals are uniquely attempting to access sensitive personal information. As businesses increase their encryption and security efforts, these unique efforts by malicious actors will only increase. If you or your enterprise stores or transmits sensitive personal information, such as taxpayer identifying information, you should take time to audit your current practices surrounding how that data is secured, and how your relationships with third parties may impact that security. The Dentons cybersecurity team is prepared to help in those efforts.
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