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Don’t Get Caught in ‘Phishing Season’

March 2, 2017Alerts Privacy and Data Security Alert

With tax season in full swing, a different season is impacting businesses across all industries: “phishing season.”

“Phishing” or “spear phishing” refers to cyberattack scams that target certain individuals within an organization with the hope of gaining access to valuable information.

These scams often take advantage of the pressures of the busy tax season by targeting employees who have immediate access to sensitive employee data under the guise of upper management and social engineering employees. These scams have spread to a variety of for-profit sectors and even nonprofits and school districts.

Spear phishing attacks are virtual traps set up by criminals who, in this case, send emails to employees that appear to come from actual upper management. Typically, they are well-written and look authentic. Usually, there is some explanation or pressing reason offered for why personal information is required. The targets have increasingly become payroll and human resources personnel with the goal of stealing employees’ W-2 information during tax season.

Roughly 100 businesses with more than 125,000 employees were victims of phishing scams last year. This year has already seen a dramatic increase in phishing scams, as approximately 80 businesses have already been targeted during tax season. These are only the businesses that reported phishing scams, and the real number is certainly dramatically larger.

The IRS has previously stated that tax season is likely partly responsible for this surge in phishing emails. Last year, the IRS issued an alert to payroll and human resources professionals about emails purporting to be from company executives requesting employees’ personal information.

“Now the criminals are focusing their schemes on company payroll departments,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “If your CEO appears to be emailing you for a list of company employees, check it out before you respond. Everyone has a responsibility to remain diligent about confirming the identity of people requesting personal information about employees.”

The IRS bulleted some of the requests contained in these fake emails:

  • Kindly send me the individual 2015 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 employees wage and tax statement for 2015, I need them in PDF file type, you can send it as an attachment. Kindly prepare the lists and email them to me ASAP.

No organization is immune during phishing season. Last year a large social media provider issued an apology and offered two years of identity theft insurance and monitoring after one of its workers inadvertently released sensitive company payroll information to a criminal. The unidentified employee opened an email that appeared to be from the victim company’s CEO. Although none of the company’s internal systems were breached and no user information was compromised, hundreds of employees had their personal information exposed to the public.

The FBI has also warned the public and has published suggestions to avoid becoming a victim during phishing season, including:

  • Keep in mind that most companies, banks, agencies, etc., don’t request personal information via email. If in doubt, give them a call (but don’t use the phone number contained in the email — that’s usually phony as well).
  • Use a phishing filter. Many of the latest web browsers have them built in or offer them as plug-ins.
  • Never follow a link to a secure site from an email. Always enter the URL manually.
  • Don’t be fooled (especially today) by the latest scams.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue recently announced its excellent Stop. Connect. Confirm. program. From the Department of Revenue’s announcement:

When a request for private/sensitive information is made, Stop. Connect. Confirm.

  1. Stop – Stop for a moment before complying with the request and sending that information.
  2. Connect – Connect with the person who sent you the request by phone or by walking over to see them. Do not respond to the email to get confirmation of the sender’s identity. The sender may be a criminal who has disguised his or her identity by spoofing your colleague’s email address.
  3. Confirm – Confirm with the executive requesting the information that the request is legitimate.

Businesses can download and print this poster and display it in their human resources and payroll departments to remind employees to Stop. Connect. Confirm. if a request for employee personal information is made.

If your employer notifies you that your W-2 or other personal information has been compromised:

  • Review the recommended actions by the Federal Trade Commission at www.identitytheft.gov or the IRS at www.irs.gov/identitytheft.
  • File a Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit if your tax return is rejected because of a duplicate Social Security number or if instructed to do so by the Internal Revenue Service.

More of these attacks should be expected as tax season, and phishing season, continue. Organizations should be vigilant about ensuring that all employees are aware of phishing scams and how to spot them.

For more information about this alert, please contact Fox Rothschild Chief Privacy Officer Mark G. McCreary at 215.299.2010 or [email protected], Kevin P. Dermody at 215.444.7159 or [email protected] or any member of the firm’s Privacy and Data Security Practice.