The Internal Revenue Service has continued to issue warnings about a prevalent phishing scam that has been circulating this tax season. The attack comes in the form of an email requesting W-2 forms or other tax information, seemingly from a valid employer or employee email address.
This same attack was used around this time last year, and now attackers are coupling it with another attack, one that requests banking information for a wire transfer – again, seemingly from an employee or employer.
“This is one of the most dangerous email phishing scams we’ve seen in a long time. It can result in the large-scale theft of sensitive data that criminals can use to commit various crimes, including filing fraudulent tax returns. We need everyone’s help to turn the tide against this scheme,’’ said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
The attack is what is known formally as a BEC (business email compromise) or BES (business email spoofing) attack, and it typically aims to gain access to tax or banking information for small-medium businesses through natural human error in their employees. Any business using email or online resources for their employees should provide extensive security training, which will drastically decrease the likelihood of being compromised.
A Closer Look at the Attacks
The W-2 scam is not new, appearing last year. Cyber-criminals tricked payroll and human resource officials into disclosing employee names, Social Security numbers and income information. The attackers then attempted to file fraudulent tax returns to steal tax refunds.
The spoofed emails will contain, for example, the actual name of the company chief executive officer. In this variation, the “CEO” sends an email to a company payroll office or human resource employee and requests a list of employees and information including Social Security numbers.
The following are some of the details that may be contained in the emails:
- Kindly send me the individual 2016 W-2 (PDF) and earnings summary of all W-2 of our company staff for a quick review.
- Can you send me the updated list of employees with full details (Name, Social Security Number, Date of Birth, Home Address, Salary)?
- I want you to send me the list of W-2 copy of employee’s wages and tax statements for 2016, I need them in PDF file type, you can send it as an attachment. Kindly prepare the lists and email them to me asap.
New Attack: The Money Wire Request
In the latest addition to the W-2 scam, the cyber-criminal follows up with an “executive” email to the payroll or HR staff and asks that a wire transfer also be made to a certain account. Although not tax related, the wire transfer scam is being coupled with the W-2 scam email, and some companies have lost both employees’ W-2s and thousands of dollars due to wire transfers.
While the money wire request is not a new attack, seeing it coupled with the W-2 attack is what makes it even more important that both employers and employees remain vigilant. The wire request may not come for weeks or even months after the W-2 attack.
What You can Do
As mentioned above, the single most important thing you can do if you’re an employer is ensure that all your employees have adequate online security training. In addition, if you work with any databases or online interactions whatsoever within your company, you need to ensure that your building and network are both physically and digitally secure.
If you aren’t an employer, you should at least read our 10 tips on making the internet a safer place!
The internet allows you access to the world at large, but it also allows the world at large access to you. If you’re not careful, you could easily be the victim of any number of various online attacks. In fact, depending on where in the world you live, many people are as likely or more so to be attacked online than in real life. Yet we rarely take cyber security as seriously as real-life security.
Luckily there is a day, February 7th, on which awareness is raised about internet security, and the hashtag #SaferInternetDay is currently trending! So we’ve compiled a list of 10 tips that we could all implement in our daily internet usage which would go a long way in making the internet safer for everybody.
- Never use the same password twice. Many people use a clever set of rules to create unique passwords for each website. We suggest using a password manager such as KeePass, which can create and store high entropy passwords for you without ever having to type them in, leaving you impervious to key-logging attacks and simple password-cracking tools.
- Always use 2-factor authentication when available. Not only does 2FA prevent users from accessing your accounts/information without your cellphone, but it also acts as an alert that somebody has attempted to access your accounts/information.
- Never use free/public WiFi. Most people know very little about the security risks posed by free/public WiFi. For a work-around, if you really value your free WiFi, at least use a free VPN.
- Always read terms & conditions/privacy agreements. In many cases, you may be agreeing to have your information used in a way that you wouldn’t approve if you had only read the privacy agreement! Always remember to read what you’re agreeing to before agreeing to it!
- Never open an unexpected attachment from a stranger. This is called phishing, when hackers will send out thousands or even millions of random emails with links that, if followed, will, in some way or another, attempt to steal your information or infect your computer.
- Always lock your phone/tablet/computer! These devices all have built-in security features which, in most cases, can be tightened or loosened in the settings. Make sure you keep your security tight and your devices locked when you’re away from them.
- Never check the “save password” box. Your devices may be secured, but if anybody does somehow gain access to them, they will have access to any account which you have the password saved in your browser for. Avoid this again by using a password manager — we recommend KeePass.
- Always use additional security for online banking. Most banking Apps and mobile sites are pretty secure, and offer plenty of increased security options to their users. We suggest that you use as many of them as possible.
- Never use a default password. This is far less common today than it used to be, but one good example of a default password is your router. Always make sure to set your router password to something unique.
- Do not share personal information online. This goes mostly for social media, where many people often feel comfortable sharing information that they don’t realize could compromise their security. One simple example is the answers to common recovery questions, such as your mother’s maiden name or the name of your first pet.
We hope you will use some of these tips for a safer internet in your daily internet usage, and maybe we can see a future where hackers and cyber criminals are disincentivized based on the knowledge and security of average internet users!