March 7, 2016 By Douglas Bonderud 2 min read

It’s a taxing time for companies. As employees gear up to file their 2015 tax returns, organizations are busy completing essential W-2 paperwork, making sure all the numbers match and all appropriate deductions have been made.

According to CSO Online, however, enterprising scammers have taken it upon themselves to make this tax season even more difficult: Phishing attacks targeting W-2 data have emerged, and at least seven companies in the last two months have fallen victim.

Booming Business for Phishing Attacks

As noted by Naked Security, the IRS has already reported a 400 percent jump in the number of phishing and malware scams this tax season. Both text and email messages are being used to ask for data related to refunds, filing status, transcript orders and PINs.

One popular avenue of attack is for scammers to develop legitimate-looking emails, purportedly from the IRS, asking for confirmation of specific personal details. Responses give attackers what they need to file fraudulent returns or amend returns after they’ve been filed.

But a new group of phishers is trying a new tactic: Sending out emails that appear to be in-house — often from the CEO or CFO — asking HR personnel for the W-2 information of employees companywide. Since the email looks official and the request seems reasonable, it’s no surprise that several businesses have already been victimized.

According to GeekWire, domain registration company Rightside was attacked, and W-2s with employee names, home addresses, Social Security numbers and 2015 income were stolen by cybercriminals.

Tax Evasion

At first glance, these types of phishing attacks seem fairly sophisticated. Attackers must obtain specific details about corporate executives and then draft emails that both look and sound legitimate enough to fool HR professionals. It’s no surprise that employees respond quickly to an email from the C-suite, but what’s odd in a world of increasingly prevent phishing scams is that there’s no oversight or second look before this data gets sent off and employees are stuck with long-term tax consequences.

Evading this problem is possible. The CSO Online piece noted that empowerment is critical here; employees must have the ability to challenge requests for this kind of data and ensure they’re not being scammed. Ideally, verification by at least two parties, one of them from the IT or InfoSec team, should be required before any W-2 data is sent over email. Ultimately, the situation requires a social solution.

These attacks work because employees are socially predisposed to do what they’re told if the request comes from an executive. This is exactly what scammers are counting on: that employees will react as they’ve been conditioned rather than in their own best interest. Best bet? A cultural shift that respects the new role of technology and its users; the consumerization of cloud computing, collaboration and HR tools requires a level playing field.

Protecting tax and other critical information should take top priority over keeping the boss waiting or experiencing blowback for questioning a sensitive data request. Simply put? Don’t get taken by tax scammers. Oversight is more important than organizational structure.

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