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IRS to Make ID Protection PIN Open to All

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said this week that beginning in 2021 it will allow all taxpayers to apply for an identity protection personal identification number (IP PIN), a single-use code designed to block identity thieves from falsely claiming a tax refund in your name. Currently, IP PINs are issued only to those who fill out an ID theft affidavit, or to taxpayers who’ve experienced tax refund fraud in previous years.

Tax refund fraud is a perennial problem involving the use of identity information and often stolen or misdirected W-2 forms to electronically file an unauthorized tax return for the purposes of claiming a refund in the name of a taxpayer.

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.  

Many of the reasons why refund fraud remains a problem have to do with timing, and some of them are described in more detail here. But the short answer is the IRS is under tremendous pressure to issue refunds quickly and to minimize “false positives” (flagging legitimate claims as fraud) — even when it may not yet have all of the information needed to accurately distinguish phony filings from legitimate ones.

One way the IRS has sought to stem the flow of bogus tax refund applications is to issue the IP PIN, which is a six-digit number assigned to eligible taxpayers to help prevent the use of their Social Security number on a fraudulent income tax return. Each PIN is good only for the tax year for which it was issued.

But up until now, the IRS has restricted who can apply for an IP PIN, although it has over the past few years issued them proactively to some taxpayers as part of a multi-state experiment to determine if doing so more widely might reduce the overall incidence of refund fraud.

The IRS says it will make its Get IP PIN tool available to all taxpayers in mid-January. Until then, if you haven’t already done so you should plant your flag at the IRS by stepping through the agency’s “secure access authentication” process.

Creating an account requires supplying a great deal of personal data; the information that will be requested is listed here.

The signup process requires one to validate ownership of a mobile phone number in one’s name, and it will reject any voice-over-IP-based numbers such as those tied to Skype or Google Voice. If the process fails at this point, the site should offer to send an activation code via postal mail to your address on file.

New IRS Site Could Make it Easy for Thieves to Intercept Some Stimulus Payments

The U.S. federal government is now in the process of sending Economic Impact Payments by direct deposit to millions of Americans. Most who are eligible for payments can expect to have funds direct-deposited into the same bank accounts listed on previous years’ tax filings sometime next week. Today, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) stood up a site to collect bank account information from the many Americans who don’t usually file a tax return. The question is, will those non-filers have a chance to claim their payments before fraudsters do?

The IRS says the Economic Impact Payment will be $1,200 for individual or head of household filers, and $2,400 for married filing jointly if they are not a dependent of another taxpayer and have a work eligible Social Security number with adjusted gross income up to:

  • $75,000 for individuals
  • $112,500 for head of household filers and
  • $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns

Taxpayers with higher incomes will receive more modest payments (reduced by $5 for each $100 above the $75,000/$112,500/$150,000 thresholds). Most people who who filed a tax return in 2018 and/or 2019 and provided their bank account information for a debit or credit should soon see an Economic Impact Payment direct-deposited into their bank accounts. Likewise, people drawing Social Security payments from the government will receive stimulus payments the same way.

But there are millions of U.S. residents — including low-income workers and certain veterans and individuals with disabilities — who aren’t required to file a tax return but who are still eligible to receive at least a $1,200 stimulus payment. And earlier today, the IRS unveiled a Web site where it is asking those non-filers to provide their bank account information for direct deposits.

However, the possibility that fraudsters may intercept payments to these individuals seems very real, given the relatively lax identification requirements of this non-filer portal and the high incidence of tax refund fraud in years past. Each year, scam artists file phony tax refund requests on millions of Americans, regardless of whether or not the impersonated taxpayer is actually due a refund. In most cases, the victim only finds out when he or she goes to file their taxes and has the return rejected because it has already been filed by scammers.

In this case, fraudsters would simply need to identify the personal information for a pool of Americans who don’t normally file tax returns, which may well include a large number of people who are disabled, poor or simply do not have easy access to a computer or the Internet. Armed with this information, the scammers need only provide the target’s name, address, date of birth and Social Security number, and then supply their own bank account information to claim at least $1,200 in electronic payments.

Page 1 of 2 in the IRS stimulus payment application page for non-filers.

Unfortunately, SSN and DOB data is not secret, nor is it hard to come by. As noted in countless stories here, there are multiple shops in the cybercrime underground that sell SSN and DOB data on tens of millions of Americans for a few dollars per record.

A review of the Web site set up to accept bank account information for the stimulus payments reveals few other mandatory identity checks to complete the filing process. It appears that all applicants need to provide a mobile phone number and verify they can receive text messages at that number, but beyond that the rest of the identity checks seem to be optional.

For example, Step 2 in the application process requests a number of data points under the “personal verification” heading,” and for verification purposes demands either the amount of the applicant’s Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) or last year’s “self-selected signature PIN.” The instructions say if you do not have or do not remember your PIN, skip this step and follow the instructions in step A above.

More importantly, it appears one doesn’t really need to supply one’s AGI in 2018. “If you didn’t file a return last year, enter 0,” the site explains.

Step 2 in the application for non-filers.

In the “electronic signature,” section at the end of the filing, applicants are asked to provide a cell phone number, to choose a PIN, and provide their date of birth. To check the filer’s identity, the site asks for a state-issued driver’s license ID number, and the ID’s issuance and expiration dates. However, the instructions say “if you don’t have a driver’s license or state issued ID, you can leave the following fields blank.

Alas, much may depend on how good the IRS is at spotting phony applications, and whether the IRS has access to and bothers to check state driver’s license records. But given the enormous pressure the agency is under to disburse these payments as rapidly as possible, it seems likely that at least some Americans will get scammed out of their stimulus payments.

The site built to collect payment data from non-filers is a slight variation on the “Free File Fillable Forms” product, which is a free tax filing service maintained by Intuit — a private company that also processes a huge percentage of tax returns each year through its paid TurboTax platform. According to a recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 14 million Americans paid for tax preparation services in 2019 when they could have filed them for free using the free-file site.

In any case, perhaps Intuit can help the IRS identify fraudulent applications sent through the non-filers site (such as by flagging users who attempt to file multiple applications from the same Internet address, browser or computer).

There is another potential fraud storm brewing with these stimulus payments. An app is set to be released sometime next week called “Get My Payment,” which is designed to be a tool for people who filed tax returns in 2018 and 2019 but who need to update their bank account information, or for those who did not provide direct deposit information in previous years’ returns.

It’s yet not clear how that app will handle verifying the identity of applicants, but KrebsOnSecurity will be taking a look at the Get My Payment app when it launches later this month (the IRS says it should be available in “mid-April”).

A Light at the End of Liberty Reserve’s Demise?

In May 2013, the U.S. Justice Department seized Liberty Reserve, alleging the virtual currency service acted as a $6 billion financial hub for the cybercrime world. Prompted by assurances that the government would one day afford Liberty Reserve users a chance to reclaim any funds seized as part of the takedown, KrebsOnSecurity filed a claim shortly thereafter to see if and when this process might take place. This week, an investigator with the U.S. Internal Revenue service finally got in touch to discuss my claim.

Federal officials charged that Liberty Reserve facilitated a “broad range of criminal activity, including credit card fraud, identity theft, investment fraud, computer hacking, child pornography, and narcotics trafficking.” The government says from 2006 until the service’s takedown, Liberty Reserve processed an estimated 55 million financial transactions worth more than $6 billion, with more than 600,000 accounts associated with users in the United States alone.

While it’s clear that the digital currency system for years was the go-to money-moving vehicle for many engaged in dodgy online activities, it also was favored by users primarily because it offered a relatively anonymous way to send irrevocable transfers globally with low fees.

The two stories I wrote about the closure of Liberty Reserve in 2013 remain among the most-read on this site, and have generated an enormous volume of emails from readers who saw many thousands of dollars held in legal limbo — much of it related to investments in online gaming platforms, payments to and from adult entertainment services, and various investment schemes.

The IRS official who contacted me was not authorized to be quoted in the media (and indeed did not initially realize he was speaking to a member of the press when he called). But he told me the government had recently obtained legal access to some of the funds held in overseas bank accounts that were used by Liberty Reserve, and that IRS investigators were now starting to contact people and vet any claims made in the wake of the takedown.

“We’re just getting to the point where we have received funds,” the investigator said. “We’ve started to contact people who originally contacted us, to vet their claims, make sure they weren’t involved in any illegal activity, and that the claim amounts match the records that we have.”

The official said he didn’t know how much money in total the government was seeking to return to former Liberty Reserve users. Requests for this information from the Justice Department office that prosecuted the case — the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — went unanswered.

The founder of Liberty Reserve, 45-year-old Arthur Budovsky, pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiring to commit money laundering. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, ordered to pay a $500,000 fine and forfeit $122 million in company funds.

If you filed a monetary claim in response to the Liberty Reserve seizure years back, you may have already been contacted by federal investigators, or you may be soon. But please know that fraudsters will likely seize on public awareness about the possible repatriation of funds to fleece the unwary: KrebsOnSecurity has received more than a few emails from readers over the years who fell for various phishing scams that promised to return funds lost at Liberty Reserve in exchange for a bogus “processing fee.”