tax refund fraud

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.

Confessions of an ID Theft Kingpin, Part II

Yesterday’s piece told the tale of Hieu Minh Ngo, a hacker the U.S. Secret Service described as someone who caused more material financial harm to more Americans than any other convicted cybercriminal. Ngo was recently deported back to his home country after serving more than seven years in prison for running multiple identity theft services. He now says he wants to use his experience to convince other cybercriminals to use their skills for good. Here’s a look at what happened after he got busted.

Hieu Minh Ngo, 29, in a recent photo.

Part I of this series ended with Ngo in handcuffs after disembarking a flight from his native Vietnam to Guam, where he believed he was going to meet another cybercriminal who’d promised to hook him up with the mother of all consumer data caches.

Ngo had been making more than $125,000 a month reselling ill-gotten access to some of the biggest data brokers on the planet. But the Secret Service discovered his various accounts at these data brokers and had them shut down one by one. Ngo became obsessed with restarting his business and maintaining his previous income. By this time, his ID theft services had earned roughly USD $3 million.

As this was going on, Secret Service agents used an intermediary to trick Ngo into thinking he’d trodden on the turf of another cybercriminal. From Part I:

The Secret Service contacted Ngo through an intermediary in the United Kingdom — a known, convicted cybercriminal who agreed to play along. The U.K.-based collaborator told Ngo he had personally shut down Ngo’s access to Experian because he had been there first and Ngo was interfering with his business.

“The U.K. guy told Ngo, ‘Hey, you’re treading on my turf, and I decided to lock you out. But as long as you’re paying a vig through me, your access won’t go away’,” the Secret Service’s Matt O’Neill recalled.

After several months of conversing with his apparent U.K.-based tormentor, Ngo agreed to meet him in Guam to finalize the deal. But immediately after stepping off of the plane in Guam, he was apprehended by Secret Service agents.

“One of the names of his identity theft services was findget[.]me,” O’Neill said. “We took that seriously, and we did like he asked.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Ngo said he spent about two months in a Guam jail awaiting transfer to the United States. A month passed before he was allowed a 10 minute phone call to his family and explain what he’d gotten himself into.

“This was a very tough time,” Ngo said. “They were so sad and they were crying a lot.”

First stop on his prosecution tour was New Jersey, where he ultimately pleaded guilty to hacking into MicroBilt, the first of several data brokers whose consumer databases would power different iterations of his identity theft service over the years.

Next came New Hampshire, where another guilty plea forced him to testify in three different trials against identity thieves who had used his services for years. Among them was Lance Ealy, a serial ID thief from Dayton, Ohio who used Ngo’s service to purchase more than 350 “fullz” — a term used to describe a package of everything one would need to steal someone’s identity, including their Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, birth date, address, phone number, email address, bank account information and passwords.

Ealy used Ngo’s service primarily to conduct tax refund fraud with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), claiming huge refunds in the names of ID theft victims who first learned of the fraud when they went to file their taxes and found someone else had beat them to it.

Ngo’s cooperation with the government ultimately led to 20 arrests, with a dozen of those defendants lured into the open by O’Neill and other Secret Service agents posing as Ngo.

The Secret Service had difficulty pinning down the exact amount of financial damage inflicted by Ngo’s various ID theft services over the years, primarily because those services only kept records of what customers searched for — not which records they purchased.

But based on the records they did have, the government estimated that Ngo’s service enabled approximately $1.1 billion in new account fraud at banks and retailers throughout the United States, and roughly $64 million in tax refund fraud with the states and the IRS.

“We interviewed a number of Ngo’s customers, who were pretty open about why they were using his services,” O’Neill said. “Many of them told us the same thing: Buying identities was so much better for them than stolen payment card data, because card data could be used once or twice before it was no good to them anymore. But identities could be used over and over again for years.”

O’Neill said he still marvels at the fact that Ngo’s name is practically unknown when compared to the world’s most infamous credit card thieves, some of whom were responsible for stealing hundreds of millions of cards from big box retail merchants.

“I don’t know of anyone who has come close to causing more material harm than Ngo did to the average American,” O’Neill said. “But most people have probably never heard of him.”

Ngo said he wasn’t surprised that his services were responsible for so much financial damage. But he was utterly unprepared to hear about the human toll. Throughout the court proceedings, Ngo sat through story after dreadful story of how his work had ruined the financial lives of people harmed by his services.

“When I was running the service, I didn’t really care because I didn’t know my customers and I didn’t know much about what they were doing with it,” Ngo said. “But during my case, the federal court received like 13,000 letters from victims who complained they lost their houses, jobs, or could no longer afford to buy a home or maintain their financial life because of me. That made me feel really bad, and I realized I’d been a terrible person.”

Even as he bounced from one federal detention facility to the next, Ngo always seemed to encounter ID theft victims wherever he went, including prison guards, healthcare workers and counselors.

“When I was in jail at Beaumont, Texas I talked to one of the correctional officers there who shared with me a story about her friend who lost her identity and then lost everything after that,” Ngo recalled. “Her whole life fell apart. I don’t know if that lady was one of my victims, but that story made me feel sick. I know now that was I was doing was just evil.”

Ngo’s former ID theft service usearching[.]info.

The Vietnamese hacker was released from prison a few months ago, and is now finishing up a mandatory three-week COVID-19 quarantine in a government-run facility near Ho Chi Minh city. In the final months of his detention, Ngo started reading everything he could get his hands on about computer and Internet security, and even authored a lengthy guide written for the average Internet user with advice about how to avoid getting hacked or becoming the victim of identity theft.

Ngo said while he would like to one day get a job working in some cybersecurity role, he’s in no hurry to do so. He’s already had at least one job offer in Vietnam, but he turned it down. He says he’s not ready to work yet, but is looking forward to spending time with his family — and specifically with his dad, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

Longer term, Ngo says, he wants to mentor young people and help guide them on the right path, and away from cybercrime. He’s been brutally honest about his crimes and the destruction he’s caused. His LinkedIn profile states up front that he’s a convicted cybercriminal.

“I hope my work can help to change the minds of somebody, and if at least one person can change and turn to do good, I’m happy,” Ngo said. “It’s time for me to do something right, to give back to the world, because I know I can do something like this.”

Still, the recidivism rate among cybercriminals tends to be extremely high, and it would be easy for him to slip back into his old ways. After all, few people know as well as he does how best to exploit access to identity data.

O’Neill said he believes Ngo probably will keep his nose clean. But he added that Ngo’s service if it existed today probably would be even more successful and lucrative given the sheer number of scammers involved in using stolen identity data to defraud states and the federal government out of pandemic assistance loans and unemployment insurance benefits.

“It doesn’t appear he’s looking to get back into that life of crime,” O’Neill said. “But I firmly believe the people doing fraudulent small business loans and unemployment claims cut their teeth on his website. He was definitely the new coin of the realm.”

Ngo maintains he has zero interest in doing anything that might send him back to prison.

“Prison is a difficult place, but it gave me time to think about my life and my choices,” he said. “I am committing myself to do good and be better every day. I now know that money is just a part of life. It’s not everything and it can’t bring you true happiness. I hope those cybercriminals out there can learn from my experience. I hope they stop what they are doing and instead use their skills to help make the world better.”

FEMA IT Specialist Charged in ID Theft, Tax Refund Fraud Conspiracy

An information technology specialist at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was arrested this week on suspicion of hacking into the human resource databases of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in 2014, stealing personal data on more than 65,000 UPMC employees, and selling the data on the dark web.

On June 16, authorities in Michigan arrested 29-year-old Justin Sean Johnson in connection with a 43-count indictment on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh allege that in 2013 and 2014 Johnson hacked into the Oracle PeopleSoft databases for UPMC, a $21 billion nonprofit health enterprise that includes more than 40 hospitals.

According to the indictment, Johnson stole employee information on all 65,000 then current and former employees, including their names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and salaries.

The stolen data also included federal form W-2 data that contained income tax and withholding information, records that prosecutors say Johnson sold on dark web marketplaces to identity thieves engaged in tax refund fraud and other financial crimes. The fraudulent tax refund claims made in the names of UPMC identity theft victims caused the IRS to issue $1.7 million in phony refunds in 2014.

“The information was sold by Johnson on dark web forums for use by conspirators, who promptly filed hundreds of false form 1040 tax returns in 2014 using UPMC employee PII,” reads a statement from U.S. Attorney Scott Brady. “These false 1040 filings claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars of false tax refunds, which they converted into Amazon.com gift cards, which were then used to purchase Amazon merchandise which was shipped to Venezuela.”

Johnson could not be reached for comment. At a court hearing in Pittsburgh this week, a judge ordered the defendant to be detained pending trial. Johnson’s attorney declined to comment on the charges.

Prosecutors allege Johnson’s intrusion into UPMC was not an isolated occurrence, and that for several years after the UPMC hack he sold personally identifiable information (PII) to buyers on dark web forums.

The indictment says Johnson used the hacker aliases “DS and “TDS” to market the stolen records to identity thieves on the Evolution and AlphaBay dark web marketplaces. However, archived copies of the now-defunct dark web forums indicate those aliases are merely abbreviations that stand for “DearthStar” and “TheDearthStar,” respectively.

“You can expect good things come tax time as I will have lots of profiles with verified prior year AGIs to make your refund filing 10x easier,” TheDearthStar advertised in an August 2015 message to AlphaBay members.

In some cases, it appears these DearthStar identities were actively involved in not just selling PII and tax refund fraud, but also stealing directly from corporate payrolls.

In an Aug. 2015 post to AlphaBay titled “I’d like to stage a heist but…,” TheDearthStar solicited people to help him cash out access he had to the payroll systems of several different companies:

“… I have nowhere to send the money. I’d like to leverage the access I have to payroll systems of a few companies and swipe a chunk of their payroll. Ideally, I’d like to find somebody who has a network of trusted individuals who can receive ACH deposits.”

When another AlphaBay member asks how much he can get, TheDearthStar responds, “Depends on how many people end up having their payroll records ‘adjusted.’ Could be $1,000 could be $100,000.”

2014 and 2015 were particularly bad years for tax refund fraud, a form of identity theft which cost taxpayers and the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars. In April 2014, KrebsOnSecurity wrote about a spike in tax refund fraud perpetrated against medical professionals that caused many to speculate that one or more major healthcare providers had been hacked.

A follow-up story that same month examined the work of a cybercrime gang that was hacking into HR departments at healthcare organizations across the country and filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the IRS on employees of those victim firms.

The Justice Department’s indictment quotes from Johnson’s online resume as stating that he is proficient at installing and administering Oracle PeopleSoft systems. A LinkedIn resume for a Justin Johnson from Detroit says the same, and that for the past five months he has served as an information technology specialist at FEMA. A Facebook profile with the same photo belongs to a Justin S. Johnson from Detroit.

Johnson’s resume also says he was self-employed for seven years as a “cyber security researcher / bug bounty hunter” who was ranked in the top 1,000 by reputation on Hacker One, a program that rewards security researchers who find and report vulnerabilities in software and web applications.

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”).