Last February, the IRS issued a warning to all employers regarding the resurgence of a W-2 based cyber scam. The scam, which targets businesses during tax season, was also “spreading to other sectors, including school districts, tribal organizations and nonprofits.” In August 2017, the IRS renewed its warning to  tax professionals and businesses as part of its “Don’t Take the Bait” campaign. In October, the IRS reminded the public about its procedures for reporting successful or failed attempts. With the tax season quickly approaching, it’s worth re-visiting how an employer can fall prey to this scam, describing how they can avoid it, suggesting they have a response plan in case they are a victim.

The cyber-scam consists of an e-mail sent to an HR or Accounting department employee, presumably from an executive or “higher-up” within the organization. Both the TO and FROM e-mail addresses are legitimate internal addresses, as are the “sender” and recipient names. The fake e-mail asks the employee to forward the company’s W-2 forms, or related tax data, to the “sender.” This request aligns with the job responsibilities of both the employee and the supposed internal “sender.”

Despite its appearance, the e-mail is a fake. The scammer is “spoofing” the company executive’s identity. In other words, the cyber-criminal is assuming the executive’s identity and e-mail address for the purpose of sending what appears to be a legitimate request for sensitive company information. The unsuspecting employee relies on the accuracy of the sender e-mail address, coupled with the sender’s job title and role, and forwards the confidential W-2 information. The information goes to a hidden e-mail address controlled by the cyber-criminal.

If successful, the cyber-criminal obtains a trove of sensitive employee data that can include names, dates of birth, addresses, salary information, social security numbers, and well as employer information needed for tax filings. The information is used to file fake individual tax returns (Form 1040) which generate fraudulent tax refunds or it is sold on the dark web to identity thieves.

This cyber-scam is form of ‘spear phishing’ known as business email compromise (BEC) attacks, or CEO spoofing. Spear phishing attacks target a specific victim by using personal or organizational information to earn the victim’s trust. The cyber-criminal uses information such as personal and work e-mail addresses, job titles and responsibilities, names of friends and colleagues, personal interests, etc. to lure the victim into providing sensitive or confidential information.  Quite often, the scammer culls this information from social media, LinkedIn, and corporate websites. The method is both convincing and highly successful.

While an organization can use firewalls, web filters, malware scans or other security software to hinder spear phishing, experts agree the best defense is employee awareness. This includes ongoing security awareness training (see our white paper with best practices for setting up a training program) for all levels of employees, simulated phishing exercises, internal procedures for verifying transfers of sensitive information, and reduced posting of personal information on-line.

A W-2 e-mail phishing scam can have a devastating impact on a business and its employees. With tax season around the corner, expect to see more creative attempts to bait your personnel.

In the event your business is a victim of such an attack, it needs to be prepared to respond. This may require steps such as (i) being prepared to investigate the nature and scope of the attack, (ii) ensuring that the attackers are not still present in its systems, (iii) determining whether notification is required under applicable state law to individuals and state agencies, (iv) reporting to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov and the Internet Crime Complaint Center of the FBI, and (v) helping employees who may have questions about rectifying their tax returns.

Before Forms W-2 have to be generated (generally on or before January 31, 2018), business should be creating awareness in their organizations about these scams to avoid them from happening, but also making sure they are prepared to respond in the event a scam is successful.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently leads the firm’s Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently leads the firm’s Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Mr. Lazzarotti also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Mr. Lazzarotti counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Mr. Lazzarotti’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Mr. Lazzarotti speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Mr. Lazzarotti served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.