A W-2 Form phishing scam that has been extensively used to con businesses out of the tax information of their employees is now being used on educational institutions. School districts need to be on high alert as cybercriminals have them fixed in their cross-hairs.
Over the past few weeks, many school districts have fallen victim to the scammers and have disclosed the W-2 Form data of employees. Teachers, teaching assistants, and other members of school staff have had their Social Security numbers and earnings information sent to fraudsters. The data are used to file fraudulent tax returns in victims’ names.
At face value, the W-2 Form phishing scam is one of the simplest con-tricks used by cybercriminals. It involves sending an email to a member of the HR or payroll team asking for the W-2 Forms of all employees to be sent via email. Why would any employee send this highly sensitive data? Because the email appears to have been sent from individuals within the school district who have a genuine need for the information. This is why the W-2 Form phishing scam is so effective. In many cases, suspicions are not aroused for a number of days after the emails have been sent. By that time, fraudulent tax returns may have been filed in the names of all of the victims.
It is unknown how many school districts have been targeted to date with this W-2 Form phishing scam, although 10 school districts in the United States have announced that their employees have fallen for the scam this year and have emailed W-2 Form data to the attackers. In total, 23 organizations have announced that an employee has fallen for a W-2 Form phishing scam in 2017, and at least 145 organizations fell for similar scams last year.
Due to the number of attacks, the IRS issued a warning in early 2016 to alert all organizations to the threat. The increase in attacks in 2017 has prompted the IRS to issue a warning once again. While corporations are at risk, the IRS has issued a warning specifically mentioning school districts, as well as non-profits and tribal organizations.
The IRS warning explains how cybercriminals have started even earlier this year. While the W-2 Form phishing scam emerged last year, many attacks occurred relatively late in the tax season. Cybercriminals are attempting to get the data sooner this year. The sooner a fake tax return is filed, the greater the chance that a refund will be issued.
A variety of spoofing techniques are employed to make the email appear like it has come from the email account of an executive or other individual high up in the organization. In some cases, criminals have first compromised the email account of a board member, making the scam harder to identify.
This year has also seen a new twist to the scam with victims targeted twice. In addition to the W-2 Form scam, the victims are also subjected to a wire transfer scam. After W-2 Forms have been sent, a wire transfer request is made to the payroll department. Some organizations have been hit with both scams and have disclosed employees’ tax information and then made a wire transfer of several thousand dollars to the same attackers.
Protecting against these scams requires a combination of technology, training and policy/procedural updates. The first step for all organizations – including school districts – is to send an email to all HR and payroll staff warning them about these phishing scams. Staff must be made aware of the scam and told to be vigilant.
Policies and procedures should be updated requiring payroll and HR staff to authenticate any email request for W-2 Form data by telephone prior to sending the information.
An advanced spam filter – such as SpamTitan – can also greatly reduce the risk of W-2 Form scam emails being delivered to end users’ inboxes. Blocking suspicious emails will reduce reliance on training and user awareness of these scams. The spam filter will also be effective at blocking further scams and other malicious emails from being delivered.