06
Mar 15

Feds Indict Three in 2011 Epsilon Hack

U.S. federal prosecutors in Atlanta today unsealed indictments against two Vietnamese men and a Canadian citizen in connection with what’s being called “one of the largest reported data breaches in U.S. history.” The government isn’t naming the victims in this case, but all signs point to the 2011 hack of Texas-based email marketing giant Epsilon.

epsilonThe government alleges the defendants made more than $2 million blasting out spam to more than one billion email addresses stolen from several email service providers (ESPs), companies that manage customer email marketing on behalf of major corporate brands.  The indictments further allege that the men sent the junk missives by hijacking the email servers used by these ESPs.

“This case reflects the cutting-edge problems posed by today’s cybercrime cases, where the hackers didn’t target just a single company; they infiltrated most of the country’s email distribution firms,” said Acting U.S. Attorney John Horn.  “And the scope of the intrusion is unnerving, in that the hackers didn’t stop after stealing the companies’ proprietary data—they then hijacked the companies’ own distribution platforms to send out bulk emails and reaped the profits from email traffic directed to specific websites.”

To be clear, prosecutors haven’t specifically outed Epsilon as the victim, nor did they name any of the other email service providers (ESPs) allegedly harmed by the defendants. But a press release issued today Horn’s office states that “the data breach into certain ESPs was the subject of a congressional inquiry and testimony before a U.S House of Representatives subcommittee on June 2, 2011.”

That date aligns with a June 2, 2011 House Energy and Commerce Committee panel on the data breaches at Sony and Epsilon. Epsilon officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

In early April 2011, customers at dozens of Fortune 500 companies began complaining of receiving spam to email addresses they’d created specifically for use with those companies. On April 2, 2011, Epsilon started notifying consumers that hackers had stolen customer email addresses and names belonging to a “subset of its clients.”

Those clients were ESPs that send email to customers on behalf of some the biggest firms in the world. Epsilon didn’t name which ESPs were impacted, but the voluminous complaints from consumers about spam indicated that those ESPs served a broad range of major companies, including JP Morgan Chase, U.S. Bank, Barclays, Kroger, McDonalds, Walgreens, and Honda, to name but a few.

A scam web site that tried to sell copies of Adobe Reader.

A scam web site that tried to sell copies of Adobe Reader.

As I noted in that April 2011 story, consumers had complained of received junk email with links to sites that tried to sell versions of software made by Adobe Systems Inc. Some of the sites reportedly even tried to sell copies of Adobe Reader — software that Adobe gives away for free.

Sure enough, the men indicted today are accused of hacking into a major ESP to steal more than a billion email addresses, which they allegedly used to promote knockoff versions of Adobe software (among other dubious products).

Prosecutors in Atlanta today unsealed indictments against Viet Quoc Nguyen and Giang Hoang Vu, both citizens of Vietnam who resided for a period of time in the Netherlands. The government also unsealed an indictment against David-Manuel Santos Da Silva, a Canadian citizen who was charged with conspiring with Nguyen and others to launder the proceeds of Nguyen’s alleged computer hacking offenses.

The government alleges that Nguyen used various methods — including targeted email phishing campaigns — to trick recipients at email marketing firms into clicking links to sites which attempted to exploit browser vulnerabilities in a bid to install malicious software. For more on those targeted attacks, see my Nov. 24, 2010 story, Spear Phishing Attacks Snag E-Mail Marketers.

Continue reading →


05
Mar 15

Intuit Failed at ‘Know Your Customer’ Basics

Intuit, the makers of TurboTax, recently introduced several changes to beef up the security of customer accounts following a spike in tax refund fraud at the state and federal level. Unfortunately, those changes don’t go far enough. Here’s a look at some of the missteps that precipitated this mess, and what the company can do differently going forward.

dyot copy2

As The Wall Street Journal noted in a story this week, competitors H&R Block and TaxAct say they haven’t seen a similar surge in fraud this year. Perhaps the bad guys are just picking on the industry leader. But with 29 million customers last year — far more than H&R Block or TaxAct (which each had about seven million) — TurboTax should also be leading the industry in security.

Keep in mind that none of the security steps described below are going to stop fraud alone. But taken together, they do or would provide more robust security for TurboTax accounts, and significantly raise the costs for criminals engaged in this type of fraud.

NO EMAIL VALIDATION

Intuit fails to take basic steps to validate key account information, such as email addresses and mobile numbers, and these failures have limited the company’s ability to enact stricter account security measures. In fact, TurboTax still does not require new users to verify their email address, a basic security precaution that even random Internet forums which don’t collect nearly as much sensitive data require of all new users.

Last month, KrebsOnSecurity featured an in-depth story that stemmed from information provided by two former Intuit security employees who accused the company of making millions of dollars knowingly processing tax refund requests filed by cybercriminals. Those individuals shared a great deal about Intuit’s internal discussions on how best to handle a spike in account takeovers and fraudsters using stolen personal information to file tax refund requests on unwitting consumers.

Both whistleblowers said the lack of email verification routinely led to bizarre scenarios in which customers would complain of seeing other peoples’ tax data in their accounts. These were customers who’d forgotten their passwords and entered their email address at the site to receive a password reset link, only to find their email address tied to multiple identities that belonged to other victims of stolen identity refund fraud.

In mid-February, Intuit announced that it would begin the process of prompting all users to validate their accounts, either by validating their email address, answering a set of knowledge-based authentication questions, or entering a code sent to their mobile phone.

In an interview today, Intuit’s leadership sidestepped questions about why the company still does not validate email addresses. But TurboTax Chief Information Security Officer Indu Kodukula did say TurboTax will no longer display multiple profiles tied to a single email address when users attempt to reset their passwords by supplying an email address.

“We had an option where when you entered an email address, we’d show you a list of user IDs that were associated with that address,” Kodukula said. “We’ve removed that option, so now if you try to do password recovery, you have to go back to the email associated with you.” Continue reading →


04
Mar 15

Credit Card Breach at Mandarin Oriental

In response to questions from KrebsOnSecurity, upscale hotel chain Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group today confirmed that its hotels have been affected by a credit card breach.

mandarinReached for comment about reports from financial industry sources about a pattern of fraudulent charges on customer cards that had all recently been used at Mandarin hotels, the company confirmed it is investigating a breach.

“We can confirm that Mandarin Oriental has been alerted to a potential credit card breach and is currently conducting a thorough investigation to identify and resolve the issue,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The statement continues, indicating that some of the chain’s point-of-sale systems were infected with malware capable of stealing customer card data:

“Mandarin Oriental can confirm that the credit card systems in an isolated number of our hotels in the US and Europe have been accessed without authorization and in violation of both civil and criminal law. The Group has identified and removed the malware and is coordinating with credit card agencies, law enforcement authorities and forensic specialists to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to fully protect our guests and our systems across our portfolio.Unfortunately incidents of this nature are increasingly becoming an industry-wide concern. The Group takes the protection of customer information very seriously and is coordinating with credit card agencies and the necessary forensic specialists to ensure our guests are protected.”  Continue reading →


03
Mar 15

Hospital Sues Bank of America Over Million-Dollar Cyberheist

A public hospital in Washington state is suing Bank of America to recoup some of the losses from a $1.03 million cyberheist that the healthcare organization suffered in 2013.

cascadeIn April 2013, organized cyber thieves broke into the payroll accounts of Chelan County Hospital No. 1 , one of several hospitals managed by the Cascade Medical Center in Leavenworth, Wash. The crooks added to the hospital’s payroll account almost 100 “money mules,” unwitting accomplices who’d been hired to receive and forward money to the perpetrators.

On Thursday, April 19, and then again on April 20, the thieves put through a total of three unauthorized payroll payments (known as automated clearing house or ACH payments), siphoning approximately $1 million from the hospital.

Bank of America was ultimately able to claw back roughly $400,000 of the fraudulent payroll payments. But in a complaint (PDF) filed against the bank, the hospital alleges that an employee on the Chelan County  Treasurer’s staff noticed something amiss the following Monday — April 22, 2013 — and alerted the bank to the suspicious activity.

“Craig Scott, a Bank of America employee, contacted the Chelan County Treasurer’s office later that morning and asked if a pending transfer request of $603,575.00 was authorized,” the complaint reads. “No funds had been transferred at the time of the phone call.  Theresa Pinneo, an employee in the Chelan County Treasurer’s Office, responded immediately that the $603,575.00 transfer request was not authorized. Nonetheless, Bank of America processed the $603,575.00 transfer request and transferred the funds as directed by the hackers.” Continue reading →


02
Mar 15

Natural Grocers Investigating Card Breach

Sources in the financial industry tell KrebsOnSecurity they have traced a pattern of fraud on customer credit and debit cards suggesting that hackers have tapped into cash registers at Natural Grocers locations across the country. The grocery chain says it is investigating “a potential data security incident involving an unauthorized intrusion targeting limited customer payment card data.”

ngrocerIn response to questions from KrebsOnSecurity about a possible security breach, Lakewood, Colo. based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage Inc. said it has hired a third-party data forensics firm, and that law enforcement is investigating the matter.

Natural Grocers emphasized that it “has received no reports of any fraudulent use of payment cards from any customer, credit card brand or financial institution.”

“In addition, there is no evidence that PIN numbers or card verification codes were accessed,” the company’s statement continued. “Finally, no personally identifiable information, such as names, addresses or Social Security numbers, was involved, as the company does not collect that data as part of its payment processing system.”

Perhaps they aren’t reporting the fraud to Natural Grocer, but banking sources have told this author about a pattern of card fraud indicating cards stolen from the retailer are already on sale in the cybercrime underground. Continue reading →


26
Feb 15

Spam Uses Default Passwords to Hack Routers

In case you needed yet another reason to change the default username and password on your wired or wireless Internet router: Phishers are sending out links that, when clicked, quietly alter the settings on vulnerable routers to harvest online banking credentials and other sensitive data from victims.

tp-link WDR4300Sunnyvale, Calif. based security firm Proofpoint said it recently detected a four-week spam campaign sent to a small number of organizations and targeting primarily Brazilian Internet users. The emails were made to look like they were sent by Brazil’s largest Internet service provider, alerting recipients about an unpaid bill. In reality, the missives contained a link designed to hack that same ISP’s router equipment.

According to Proofpoint, the link in the spam campaign led to a page that mimicked the telecom provider. The landing page included code that silently attempted to execute what’s known as a cross-site request forgery attack on known vulnerabilities in two types of routers, UT Starcom and TP-Link. The malicious page would then invoke hidden inline frames (also known as “iframes”) that try to log in to the administration page of the victim’s router using a list of known default credentials built into these devices.

If successful, the attacker’s script would modify the domain name system (DNS) settings on the victim’s router, adding the attacker’s own DNS server as the primary server while assigning the secondary DNS server to Google’s public DNS (8.8.8.8). Such a change would allow the attackers to hijack the victim’s traffic to any Web site, redirecting it away from the legitimate site to a look-alike page designed to siphon the victim’s credentials. In the event that the attacker’s DNS server was unresponsive for any reason, the victim’s router would still function normally.

The malicious script used by the spammers in this campaign tries multiple default multiple default credentials in a bid to hijack routers with factory-default settings. Image: Proofpoint.

The malicious script used by the spammers in this campaign tries multiple default credentials in a bid to hijack routers with factory-default settings. Image: Proofpoint.

The real danger of attacks like these is that they bypass antivirus and other security tools, and they are likely to go undetected by the victim for long periods of time. Continue reading →


26
Feb 15

Webnic Registrar Blamed for Hijack of Lenovo, Google Domains

Two days ago, attackers allegedly associated with the fame-seeking group Lizard Squad briefly hijacked Google’s Vietnam domain (google.com.vn). On Wednesday, Lenovo.com was similarly attacked. Sources now tell KrebsOnSecurity that both hijacks were possible because the attackers seized control over Webnic.cc, the Malaysian registrar that serves both domains and 600,000 others.

On Feb. 23, google.com.vn briefly redirected visitors to a page that read, “Hacked by Lizard Squad, greetz from antichrist, Brian Krebs, sp3c, Komodo, ryan, HTP & Rory Andrew Godfrey (holding it down in Texas).” The message also included a link to the group’s Twitter page and its Lizard Stresser online attacks-for-hire service.

Today, the group took credit for hacking Lenovo.com, possibly because it was recently revealed that the computer maker was shipping the invasive Superfish adware with all some new Lenovo notebook PCs (the company has since said Superfish is now disabled on all Lenovo products and that it will no longer pre-load the software).

According to a report in TheVerge.com, the HTML source code for Lenovo.com was changed to read, “the new and improved rebranded Lenovo website featuring Ryan King and Rory Andrew Godfrey.”

The Verge story notes that both men have been identified as members of the Lizard Squad; to my knowledge this has never been true. In fact, both used to be part of a black hat and now-defunct hacker collective known as Hack The Planet (HTP) along with one of the main current LizardSquad members — Julius “Zeekill” Kivimaki (for more on Julius, see these stories). However, both King (a.k.a “Starfall”) and Godfrey (“KMS”) have been quite publicly working to undermine and expose the group for months.

Reached via instant message, both King and Godfrey said the Lizard Squad used a command injection vulnerability in Webnic.cc to upload a rootkit — a set of hacking tools that hide the intruder’s presence on a compromised system and give the attacker persistent access to that system. Continue reading →


25
Feb 15

FBI: $3M Bounty for ZeuS Trojan Author

The FBI this week announced it is offering a USD $3 million bounty for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of one Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian man the government believes is responsible for building and distributing the ZeuS banking Trojan.

Bogachev is thought to be a core architect of ZeuS, a malware strain that has been used to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from bank accounts — mainly from small- to mid-sized businesses based in the United States and Europe. Bogachev also is accused of being part of a crime gang that infected tens of millions of computers, harvested huge volumes of sensitive financial data, and rented the compromised systems to other hackers, spammers and online extortionists.

So much of the intelligence gathered about Bogachev and his alleged accomplices has been scattered across various court documents and published reports over the years, but probably just as much on this criminal mastermind and his associates has never seen the light of day. What follows is a compendium of knowledge — a bit of a dossier, if you will — on Bogachev and his trusted associates.

I first became aware of Bogachev by his nickname at the time –“Slavik” — in June 2009, after writing about a $415,000 cyberheist against Bullitt County, Kentucky. I was still working for The Washington Post then, but that story would open the door to sources who were tracking the activities of an organized cybercrime gang that spanned from Ukraine and Russia to the United Kingdom.

Yevgeniy Bogachev, Evgeniy Mikhaylovich Bogachev, a.k.a. "lucky12345", "slavik", "Pollingsoon". Source: FBI.gov "most wanted, cyber.

Yevgeniy Bogachev, Evgeniy Mikhaylovich Bogachev, a.k.a. “lucky12345″, “slavik”, “Pollingsoon”. Source: FBI.gov “most wanted, cyber.

Not long after that Bullitt County cyberheist story ran, I heard from a source who’d hacked the Jabber instant message server that these crooks were using to plan and coordinate their cyberheists. The members of this crew quickly became regular readers of my Security Fix blog at The Post after seeing their exploits detailed on the blog.

bullittcar-thumb-250x110They also acknowledged in their chats that they’d been in direct contact with the Zeus author himself — and that the gang had hired the malware author to code a custom version of the Trojan that would latter become known as “Jabberzeus.” The “jabber” part of the name is a reference to a key feature of the malware that would send an Jabber instant message to members of the gang anytime a new victim logged into a bank account that had a high balance.

Here’s a snippet from that chat, translated from Russian. “Aqua” was responsible for recruiting and managing a network of “money mules” to help cash out the payroll accounts that these crooks were hijacking with the help of their custom Jabberzeus malware. “Dimka” is Aqua’s friend, and Aqua explains to him that they hired the ZeuS author to create the custom malware and help them troubleshoot it. But Aqua is unhappy because the ZeuS author declined to help them keep it undetectable by commercial antivirus tools.

dimka: I read about the king of seas, was that your handiwork?

aqua: what are you talking about?

dimka: zeus

aqua: yes, we are using it right now. its developer sits with us on the system

dimka: it seems to be very popular right now

aqua: but that fucker annoyed the hell out of everyone. he refuses to write bypass of [anti-malware] scans, and trojan penetration is only 35-40%. we need better

aqua: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix read this. here you find almost everything about us

aqua: we’re using this [custom] system. we are the Big Dog. the rest using Zeus are doing piddly crap.

Days later, other members of the Jabberzeus crew  were all jabbering about the Bullitt County cyberheist story. The individual who uses the nickname “tank” in the conversation below managed money mules for the gang and helped coordinate the exchange of stolen banking credentials. Tank begins the conversation by pasting a link to my Washington Post story about the Bullitt County hack.

tank@incomeet.com: That is about us. Only the figures are fairytales. 

haymixer@jabber.ru/dimarikk: This was from your botnet account. Apparently, this is why our hosters in service rejected the old ones. They caused a damn commotion.

tank@incomeet.com: I have already become paranoid over this. Such bullshit as this in the Washington Post.

haymixer@jabber.ru/dimarikk: I almost dreamed of this bullshit at night. He writes about everything that I touch in any manner…Klik Partners, ESTHost, MCCOLO…

tank@incomeet.com: Now you are not alone.  Just 2 weeks before this I contacted him as an expert to find out anything new. It turns out that he wrote this within 3 days. Now we also will dream about him.

In a separate conversation between Tank and the Zeus author (using the nickname “lucky12345″ here), the two complain about news coverage of Zeus:

tank: Are you there?

tank: This is what they damn wrote about me.

tank: [pasting a link to the Washington Post story]

tank: I’ll take a quick look at history

tank: Originator: BULLITT COUNTY FISCAL Company: Bullitt County Fiscal Court

tank: Well, you got it from that cash-in.

lucky12345: From 200k?

tank: Well, they are not the right amounts and the cash out from that account was shitty.

tank: Levak was written there.

tank: Because now the entire USA knows about Zeus.

tank: :(

lucky12345: It’s fucked.

After the Bullitt County story, my source and I tracked this gang as they hit one small business after another. In the ensuing six months before my departure from The Post, I wrote about this gang’s attacks against more than a dozen companies in the United States.

By this time, Slavik was openly selling the barebones ZeuS Trojan code that Jabberzeus was built on to anyone who could pay several thousand dollars for the crimeware kit. There is evidence he also was using his own botnet kit or at least taking a fee to set up instances of it on behalf of buyers. In late 2009, security researchers had tracked dozens of Zeus control servers that phoned home to domains which bore his nickname, such as slaviki-res1.com, slavik1[dot]com, slavik2[dot]com, slavik3[dot]com, and so on. Continue reading →


22
Feb 15

TurboTax’s Anti-Fraud Efforts Under Scrutiny

Two former security employees at Intuit — the makers of the popular tax preparation software and service TurboTax – allege that the company has made millions of dollars knowingly processing state and federal tax refunds filed by cybercriminals. Intuit says it leads the industry in voluntarily reporting suspicious returns, and that ultimately it is up to the Internal Revenue Service to develop industry-wide requirements for tax preparation firms to follow in their fight against the multi-billion dollar problem of tax refund fraud.

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity published an exclusive interview with Indu Kodukula, Intuit’s chief information security officer. Kodukula explained that customer password re-use was a major cause of a spike this tax season in fraudulent state tax refund requests. The increase in phony state refund requests prompted several state revenue departments to complain to their state attorneys general. In response, TurboTax temporarily halted all state filings while it investigated claims of a possible breach. The company resumed state filing shortly after that pause, saying it could find no evidence that customers’ TurboTax credentials had been stolen from its network.

Kodukula noted that although the incidence of hijacked, existing TurboTax accounts was rapidly growing, the majority of refund scams the company has to deal with stem from “stolen identity refund fraud” or SIRF. In SIRF, the thieves gather pieces of data about taxpayers from outside means — through phishing attacks or identity theft services in the underground, for example — then create accounts at TurboTax in the victims’ names and file fraudulent tax refund claims with the IRS.

Kodukula cast Intuit as an industry leader in helping the IRS identify and ultimately deny suspicious tax returns. But that portrayal only tells part of the story, according to two former Intuit employees who until recently each held crucial security positions helping the company identify and fight tax fraud. Both individuals described a company that has intentionally dialed back efforts to crack down on SIRF so as not to lose market share when fraudsters began shifting their business to Intuit’s competitors.

Robert Lee, a security business partner at Intuit’s consumer tax group until his departure from the company in July 2014, said he and his team at Intuit developed sophisticated fraud models to help Intuit quickly identify and close accounts that were being used by crooks to commit massive amounts of SIRF fraud.

But Lee said he was mystified when Intuit repeatedly refused to adopt some basic policies that would make it more costly and complicated for fraudsters to abuse the company’s service for tax refund fraud, such as blocking the re-use of the same Social Security number across a certain number of TurboTax accounts, or preventing the same account from filing more than a small number of tax returns.

“If I sign up for an account and file tax refund requests on 100 people who are not me, it’s obviously fraud,” Lee said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “We found literally millions of accounts that were 100 percent used only for fraud. But management explicitly forbade us from either flagging the accounts as fraudulent, or turning off those accounts.

The allegations surface just days after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said his panel will be holding hearings on reports about a spike in fraudulent filings through TurboTax and elsewhere. The House Ways and Means Committee is reportedly looking into the matter and has held bipartisan staff-level discussions with the IRS and Intuit.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it received 332,646 identity theft complaints in the calendar year 2014, and that almost one-third of them — the largest portion — were tax-related identity theft complaints. Tax identity theft has been the largest ID theft category for the last five years.

According to a recent report (PDF) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the IRS estimated it prevented $24.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in 2013.  Unfortunately, the IRS also paid $5.8 billion that year for refund requests later determined to be fraud. The GAO noted that because of the difficulties in knowing the amount of undetected fraud, the actual amount could far exceed those estimates.

SQUEEZING THE BALLOON

Lee said the scammers who hijack existing TurboTax accounts most often will use stolen credit cards to pay the $25-$50 TurboTax fee for processing and sending the refund request to the IRS.

But he said the crooks perpetrating SIRF typically force the IRS — and, by extension, U.S. taxpayers — to cover the fee for their bogus filings. That’s because most SIRF filings take advantage of what’s known in the online tax preparation business as a ‘refund transfer’, which deducts TurboTax’s filing fee from the total amount of the fraudulent refund request. If the IRS then approves the fraudulent return, TurboTax gets paid.

“The reason fraudsters love this system is because they don’t even have to use stolen credit cards to do it,” Lee said. “What’s really going on here is that the fraud business is actually profitable for Intuit.”

Lee confirmed Kodukula’s narrative that Intuit is an industry leader in sending the IRS regular reports about tax returns that appear suspicious. But he said the company eventually scaled back those reports after noticing that the overall fraud the IRS was reporting wasn’t decreasing as a result of Intuit’s reporting: Fraudsters were simply taking their business to Intuit’s competitors.

“We noticed the IRS started taking action, and because of this, we started to see not only our fraud numbers but also our revenue go down before the peak of tax season a couple of years ago,” Lee recalled. “When we stopped or delayed sending those fraud numbers, we saw the fraud and our revenue go back up.

Lee said that early on, the reports on returns that Intuit’s fraud teams flagged as bogus were sent immediately to the IRS.

“Then, there was a time period where we didn’t deliver that information at all,” he said. “And then at one point there was a two-week delay added between the time the information was ready and the time it was submitted to the IRS. There was no technical reason for that delay, but I can only speculate what the real justification for that was.”

KrebsOnSecurity obtained a copy of a recording made of an internal Intuit conference call on Oct. 14, 2014, in which Michael Lyons, TurboTax’s deputy general counsel, describes the risks of the company being overly aggressive — relative to its competitors — in flagging suspicious tax returns for the IRS.

“As you can imagine, the bad guys being smart and savvy, they saw this and noticed it, they just went somewhere else,” Lyons said in the recording. “The amount of fraudulent activity didn’t change. The landscape didn’t change. It was like squeezing a balloon. They recognized that TurboTax returns were getting stopped at the door. So they said, ‘We’ll just go over to H&R Block, to TaxSlayer or TaxAct, or whatever.’ And all of a sudden we saw what we call ‘multi-filer activity’ had completely dropped off a cliff but the amount that the IRS reported coming through digital channels and through their self reported fraud network was not changing at all. The bad guys had just gone from us to others.”

That recording was shared by Shane MacDougall, formerly a principal security engineer at Intuit. MacDougall resigned from the company last week and filed an official whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that the company routinely placed profits ahead of ethics. MacDougall submitted the recording in his filing with the SEC.

“Complainant repeatedly raised issues with managers, directors, and even [a senior vice president] of the company to try to rectify ongoing fraud, but was repeatedly rebuffed and told Intuit couldn’t do anything that would ‘hurt the numbers’,” MacDougall wrote in his SEC filing. “Complainant repeatedly offered solutions to help stop the fraud, but was ignored.”

NO RULES OF THE ROAD

For its part, Intuit maintains that it is well out in front of its competitors in voluntarily reporting to the IRS refund requests that the company has flagged as suspicious. The company also stresses that it has done so even though the IRS still has not promulgated rules that require TurboTax and its competitors to report suspicious returns  — or even how to report such activity. Intuit executives say they went to the IRS three years ago to request specific authority to share that information. The IRS did not respond to requests for comment.

Intuit officials declined to address Lyons’ recorded comments specifically, although they did confirm that a company attorney led an employee WebEx meeting on the date the recording was made. But David Williams, Intuit’s chief tax officer, said what’s missing from the recorded conversation excerpted above is that Intuit has been at the forefront of asking the IRS to propose industry standards that every industry player can follow — requests that have so far gone unheeded.

“We have led the industry in making suspicious activity reports, and I’d venture to say that virtually all of the returns that Mr. Lee is quoted as referring to appear in our suspicious activity reports and are stopped by the IRS,” Williams said. “Whatever else Mr. Lee may have seen, I’m not buying the premise that somehow there was a profit motive in it for us.”

Robert Lanesey, Inuit’s chief communications officer, said Intuit doesn’t make a penny on tax filings that are ultimately rejected by the IRS.

“Revenue that comes from reports included in our suspicious activity reports to the IRS has dropped precipitously as we have changed and improved our reporting mechanisms,” Lanesey said. “When it comes to market share, it doesn’t count toward our market share unless it’s a successful return. We’ve gotten better and we’ve gotten more accurate, but it’s not about money.”

Williams added that it is not up to Intuit to block returns from being filed, and that it is the IRS’s sole determination whether to process a given refund request.

“We will flag them as suspicious, but we do not get to determine if a return is fraud,” Williams said. “It’s the IRS’s responsibility and ultimately they make that decision. What I will tell you is that of the ones we report as suspicious, the IRS rejects a very high percentage, somewhere in the 80-90 percent range.”

Earlier this month, Intuit CEO Brad Smith sent a letter to the commissioner of the IRS,  noting that while Intuit sends reports to the IRS when it sees patterns of suspicious behavior, the government has been limited in the types of information it can share with parties, including tax-preparation firms.

“The IRS could be the convener to bring the States together to help drive common standards adoption,” Smith wrote, offering the assistance of Intuit staff members “to work directly with the IRS and the States in whatever ways may be of assistance…as the fight against fraud goes forward.”

ZERO FALSE POSITIVES

Lee and MacDougall both said Intuit’s official approach to fighting fraud is guided by a policy of zero tolerance for so-called “false positives” — the problem of incorrectly flagging a legitimate customer refund request as suspicious, and possibly incurring the double whammy of a delay in the customer’s refund and an inquiry by the IRS. This is supported by audio recordings of conference calls between Intuit’s senior executives that were shared with KrebsOnSecurity.

“We protect the sanctity of the customer experience and hold it as inviolate,” Intuit’s General
Counsel Michael Lyons can be heard saying on a recorded October 2014 internal conference call. “We do everything we can to organize the best screening program we can, but we avoid false positives at all costs. Because getting a legitimate taxpayer ensnared in the ‘you’re a bad guy’ area with the IRS is hell. Once your return gets flagged as suspicious, rejected and the IRS starts investigating, you’re not in a good place. More than 50 percent of people out there are living paycheck to paycheck, and when this is the biggest paycheck of the year for them, they can’t afford to get erroneously flagged as fraud and have to prove to the IRS who they are so that they can get that legitimate refund that they were expecting months ago.”

On the same conference call, MacDougall can be heard asking Lyons why the company wouldn’t want to use security as a way to set the company apart from its competitors in the online tax preparation industry.

Continue reading →