GCA Press Release

Consumer Alert: Tax Software Providers Not Protecting Emails from Phishing and Spoofing

Half of Top 8 Tax Software Providers Leave Consumers Vulnerable to Email-Borne Attacks That Can Lead to Identity and Bank Account Theft

Customers of H&R Block, TaxAct, Turbo Tax and Free Tax USA Most Susceptible


WASHINGTON, March 14, 2018 — Only half of the top tax software providers are using the most basic of email protections to secure communications with customers, according to new research from the Global Cyber Alliance. Tens of millions of Americans will use tax software to prepare their federal and state taxes, yet some of the industry’s biggest names — H&R Block, TaxAct, Turbo Tax and Free Tax USA — are not preventing their email domains from being hijacked to trick consumers into sharing sensitive data that could include social security numbers, bank account numbers and dates of birth.

In an examination of the top 8 tax software providers, only Liberty Tax Online is using the highest level of email-authentication security — the Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) protocol — to prevent delivery of spoofed email. Three others — Credit Karma, Jackson Hewitt and Tax Slayer — are using the second-highest level of DMARC protection that marks spoofed email as spam. TurboTax and Free Tax USA have begun to deploy DMARC, but it is not yet set up to protect consumers from email that pretends to be from the tax providers. H&R Block and TaxAct USA have not initiated any DMARC deployment.

DMARC weeds out fake emails (known as direct domain spoofing) deployed by spammers and phishers targeting the inboxes of any person with an email address.  According to the 2017 Symantec ISTR report, 1 in 131 emails contained malware, the highest rate in 5 years.

The IRS warned tax providers in 2017 that they were “increasingly the targets of national and international cybercriminal rings.”  With the incidents of phishing continuing to rise, individual consumers are also at risk of being attacked through email which appears to come from their tax software providers.

“Consumers are accustomed to inputting the most sensitive and personal information, from social security numbers to financial information and health care expenses, into tax preparation software,” said Philip Reitinger, President and CEO of the Global Cyber Alliance. “The very nature of a consumer’s relationship with a tax provider makes it seem legitimate to receive emails that may ask for additional personal information, putting consumers at great risk from phishing scams that appear to involve tax providers. Companies need to provide the maximum protections.  There appears to be a hole in the protections provided by some of the leading tax software providers – a hole that could be fixed by deployment of DMARC at its strongest level.”

Without DMARC protection, hackers can create emails that appear to be from a trusted source but contain malicious links or ask for additional information that could be provided by unsuspecting consumers. 

The Data

Using GCA’s DMARC tools, the researchers could determine how far organizations were in the process of implementing DMARC.

 

  DMARC Count Effect at this level of implementation
Domains Tested 8 Based on PC Magazine Rankings of the Top 8 Tax Software Providers
Reject Liberty Tax The highest level of DMARC protection. If reject is in place, incoming messages that fail authentication get blocked.
Quarantine

Credit Karma

Jackson Hewitt

Tax Slayer

The second highest level of DMARC protection. With quarantine in place, emails that don’t meet the policy are sent to the spam or junk folder.
None

Free Tax USA

Turbo Tax

None means that the DMARC policy is in place, but the only thing that’s happening is monitoring. No action is being taken to block spoofed emails.
No Policy

H&R Block

TaxAct

No policy means that DMARC is not in place.

 

Steps Consumers Can Take to Protect Themselves

Consumers need to remain vigilant to prevent being scammed through email:

  1. Always scroll over the sender’s email address to ensure that the address is legitimate. Often, the address looks correct until you scroll over it with your mouse to reveal a totally different address.
  2. Do not click on embedded links in emails. Type the address into your browser’s address bar if you want to go to a site.
  3. Do not email personal or sensitive information. Your tax software provider will always require you to input the information in secure fashion by logging into your account.
  4. Do not call any customer service phone numbers you see in an email. Go to the vendor’s official site and login and double check the customer service phone numbers.
  5. Install a DNS security solution that will help to block malicious website links should a phishing email make it to your inbox. One such solution – Quad9 – is free and can be installed in minutes. Learn more at Quad9.net.

 

GCA has published four reviews of DMARC implementation – two looking at organizations in cybersecurity, one looking at banks, and another examining public and private hospitals.

For more details about DMARC or to check if an organization is using DMARC, visit dmarcguide.globalcyberalliance.org.

 

About the Global Cyber Alliance

The Global Cyber Alliance (GCA) is an international, cross-sector effort dedicated to confronting cyber risk and improving our connected world. It is a catalyst to bring communities of interest and affiliations together in an environment that sparks innovation with concrete, measurable achievements. While most efforts at addressing cyber risk have been industry, sector, or geographically specific, GCA partners across borders and sectors. GCA’s mantra “Do Something. Measure It.” is a direct reflection of its mission to eradicate systemic cyber risks.

GCA, a 501(c)3, was founded in September 2015 by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the City of London Police and the Center for Internet Security. Learn more at www.globalcyberalliance.org.

 

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