Category: irs

Feb 19 2018

Krebs on Security 2018-02-19 10:44:49

Identity thieves who specialize in tax refund fraud have been busy of late hacking online accounts at multiple tax preparation firms, using them to file phony refund requests. Once the Internal Revenue Service processes the return and deposits money into bank accounts of the hacked firms’ clients, the crooks contact those clients posing as a collection agency and demand that the money be “returned.”

In one version of the scam, criminals are pretending to be debt collection agency officials acting on behalf of the IRS. They’ll call taxpayers who’ve had fraudulent tax refunds deposited into their bank accounts, claim the refund was deposited in error, and threaten recipients with criminal charges if they fail to forward the money to the collection agency.

This is exactly what happened to a number of customers at a half dozen banks in Oklahoma earlier this month. Elaine Dodd, executive vice president of the fraud division at the Oklahoma Bankers Association, said many financial institutions in the Oklahoma City area had “a good number of customers” who had large sums deposited into their bank accounts at the same time.

Dodd said the bank customers received hefty deposits into their accounts from the U.S. Treasury, and shortly thereafter were contacted by phone by someone claiming to be a collections agent for a firm calling itself DebtCredit and using the Web site name debtcredit[dot]us.

“We’re having customers getting refunds they have not applied for,” Dodd said, noting that the transfers were traced back to a local tax preparer who’d apparently gotten phished or hacked. Those banks are now working with affected customers to close the accounts and open new ones, Dodd said. “If the crooks have breached a tax preparer and can send money to the client, they can sure enough pull money out of those accounts, too.”

Several of the Oklahoma bank’s clients received customized notices from a phony company claiming to be a collections agency hired by the IRS.

The domain debtcredit[dot]us hasn’t been active for some time, but an exact copy of the site to which the bank’s clients were referred by the phony collection agency can be found at jcdebt[dot]com — a domain that was registered less than a month ago. The site purports to be associated with a company in New Jersey called Debt & Credit Consulting Services, but according to a record (PDF) retrieved from the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office, that company’s business license was revoked in 2010.

“You may be puzzled by an erroneous payment from the Internal Revenue Service but in fact it is quite an ordinary situation,” reads the HTML page shared with people who received the fraudulent IRS refunds. It includes a video explaining the matter, and references a case number, the amount and date of the transaction, and provides a list of personal “data reported by the IRS,” including the recipient’s name, Social Security Number (SSN), address, bank name, bank routing number and account number.

All of these details no doubt are included to make the scheme look official; most recipients will never suspect that they received the bank transfer because their accounting firm got hacked.

The scammers even supposedly assign the recipients an individual “appointed debt collector,” complete with a picture of the employee, her name, telephone number and email address. However, the emails to the domain used in the email address from the screenshot above (debtcredit[dot]com) bounced, and no one answers at the provided telephone number.

Along with the Web page listing the recipient’s personal and bank account information, each recipient is given a “transaction error correction letter” with IRS letterhead (see image below) that includes many of the same personal and financial details on the HTML page. It also gives the recipient instructions on the account number, ACH routing and wire number to which the wayward funds are to be wired.

A phony letter from the IRS instructing recipients on how and where to wire the money that was deposited into their bank account as a result of a fraudulent tax refund request filed in their name.

Tax refund fraud affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of U.S. citizens annually. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually due a refund from the IRS.

On Feb. 2, 2018, the IRS issued a warning to tax preparers, urging them to step up their security in light of increased attacks. On Feb. 13, the IRS warned that phony refunds through hacked tax preparation accounts are a “quickly growing scam.”

“Thieves know it is more difficult to identify and halt fraudulent tax returns when they are using real client data such as income, dependents, credits and deductions,” the agency noted in the Feb. 2 alert. “Generally, criminals find alternative ways to get the fraudulent refunds delivered to themselves rather than the real taxpayers.”

The IRS says taxpayer who receive fraudulent transfers from the IRS should contact their financial institution, as the account may need to be closed (because the account details are clearly in the hands of cybercriminals). Taxpayers receiving erroneous refunds also should consider contacting their tax preparers immediately.

If you go to file your taxes electronically this year and the return is rejected, it may mean fraudsters have beat you to it. The IRS advises taxpayers in this situation to follow the steps outlined in the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft. Those unable to file electronically should mail a paper tax return along with Form 14039 (PDF) — the Identity Theft Affidavit — stating they were victims of a tax preparer data breach.

Jan 29 2018

Krebs on Security 2018-01-29 10:44:23

Today, Jan. 29, is officially the first day of the 2018 tax-filing season, also known as the day fraudsters start requesting phony tax refunds in the names of identity theft victims. Want to minimize the chances of getting hit by tax refund fraud this year? File your taxes before the bad guys can!

Tax refund fraud affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of U.S. citizens annually. Victims usually first learn of the crime after having their returns rejected because scammers beat them to it. Even those who are not required to file a return can be victims of refund fraud, as can those who are not actually due a refund from the IRS.

According to the IRS, consumer complaints over tax refund fraud have been declining steadily over the years as the IRS and states enact more stringent measures for screening potentially fraudulent applications.

If you file your taxes electronically and the return is rejected, and if you were the victim of identity theft (e.g., if your Social Security number and other information was leaked in the Equifax breach last year), you should submit an Identity Theft Affidavit (Form 14039). The IRS advises that if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft, continue to pay your taxes and file your tax return, even if you must do so by paper.

If the IRS believes you were likely the victim of tax refund fraud in the previous tax year they will likely send you a special filing PIN that needs to be entered along with this year’s return before the filing will be accepted by the IRS electronically. This year marks the third out of the last five that I’ve received one of these PINs from the IRS.

Of course, filing your taxes early to beat the fraudsters requires one to have all of the tax forms needed to do so. As a sole proprietor, this is a great challenge because many companies take their sweet time sending out 1099 forms and such (even though they’re required to do so by Jan. 31).

A great many companies are now turning to online services to deliver tax forms to contractors, employees and others. For example, I have received several notices via email regarding the availability of 1099 forms online; most say they are sending the forms in snail mail, but that if I need them sooner I can get them online if I just create an account or enter some personal information at some third-party site.

Having seen how so many of these sites handle personal information, I’m not terribly interested in volunteering more of it. According to Bankrate, taxpayers can still file their returns even if they don’t yet have all of their 1099s — as long as you have the correct information about how much you earned.

“Unlike a W-2, you generally don’t have to attach 1099s to your tax return,” Bankrate explains. “They are just issued so you’ll know how much to report, with copies going to the IRS so return processors can double-check your entries. As long as you have the correct information, you can put it on your tax form without having the statement in hand.”

In past tax years, identity thieves have used data gleaned from a variety of third-party and government Web sites to file phony tax refund requests — including from the IRS itself! One of their perennial favorites was the IRS’s Get Transcript service, which previously had fairly lax authentication measures.

After hundreds of thousands of taxpayers had their tax data accessed through the online tool, the IRS took it offline for a bit and then brought it back online but requiring a host of new data elements.

But many of those elements — such as your personal account number from a credit card, mortgage, home equity loan, home equity line of credit or car loan — can be gathered from multiple locations online with almost no authentication. For example, earlier this week I heard from Jason, a longtime reader who was shocked at how little information was required to get a copy of his 2017 mortgage interest statement from his former lender.

“I called our old mortgage company (Chase) to retrieve our 1098 from an old loan today,” Jason wrote. “After I provided the last four digits of the social security # to their IVR [interactive voice response system] that was enough to validate me to request a fax of the tax form, which would have included sensitive information. I asked for a supervisor who explained to me that it was sufficient to check the SSN last 4 + the caller id phone number to validate the account.”

If you’ve taken my advice and placed a security freeze on your credit file with the major credit bureaus, you don’t have to worry about thieves somehow bypassing the security on the IRS’s Get Transcript site. That’s because the IRS uses Experian to ask a series of knowledge-based authentication questions before an online account can even be created at the IRS’s site to access the transcript.

Now, anyone who reads this site regularly should know I’ve been highly critical of these KBA questions as a means of authentication. But the upshot here is that if you have a freeze in place at Experian (and I sincerely hope you do), Experian won’t even be able to ask those questions. Thus, thieves should not be able to create an account in your name at the IRS’s site (unless of course thieves manage to successfully request your freeze PIN from Experian’s site, in which case all bets are off).

While you’re getting your taxes in order this filing season, be on guard against fake emails or Web sites that may try to phish your personal or tax data. The IRS stresses that it will never initiate contact with taxpayers about a bill or refund. If you receive a phishing email that spoofs the IRS, consider forwarding it to

Finally, tax season also is when the phone-based tax scams kick into high gear, with fraudsters threatening taxpayers with arrest, deportation and other penalties if they don’t make an immediate payment over the phone. If you care for older parents or relatives, this may be a good time to remind them about these and other phone-based scams.

Jan 26 2018

Krebs on Security 2018-01-26 15:43:29

KrebsOnSecurity has long warned readers to plant your own flag at the my Social Security online portal of the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) — even if you are not yet drawing benefits from the agency — because identity thieves have been registering accounts in peoples’ names and siphoning retirement and/or disability funds. This is the story of a Midwest couple that took all the right precautions and still got hit by ID thieves who impersonated them to the SSA directly over the phone.

In mid-December 2017 this author heard from Ed Eckenstein, a longtime reader in Oklahoma whose wife Ruth had just received a snail mail letter from the SSA about successfully applying to withdraw benefits. The letter confirmed she’d requested a one-time transfer of more than $11,000 from her SSA account. The couple said they were perplexed because both previously had taken my advice and registered accounts with MySocialSecurity, even though Ruth had not yet chosen to start receiving SSA benefits.

The fraudulent one-time payment that scammers tried to siphon from Ruth Eckenstein’s Social Security account.

Sure enough, when Ruth logged into her MySocialSecurity account online, there was a pending $11,665 withdrawal destined to be deposited into a Green Dot prepaid debit card account (funds deposited onto a Green Dot card can be spent like cash at any store that accepts credit or debit cards). The $11,655 amount was available for a one-time transfer because it was intended to retroactively cover monthly retirement payments back to her 65th birthday.

The letter the Eckensteins received from the SSA indicated that the benefits had been requested over the phone, meaning the crook(s) had called the SSA pretending to be Ruth and supplied them with enough information about her to enroll her to begin receiving benefits. Ed said he and his wife immediately called the SSA to notify them of fraudulent enrollment and pending withdrawal, and they were instructed to appear in person at an SSA office in Oklahoma City.

The SSA ultimately put a hold on the fraudulent $11,665 transfer, but Ed said it took more than four hours at the SSA office to sort it all out. Mr. Eckenstein said the agency also informed them that the thieves had signed his wife up for disability payments. In addition, her profile at the SSA had been changed to include a phone number in the 786 area code (Miami, Fla.).

“They didn’t change the physical address perhaps thinking that would trigger a letter to be sent to us,” Ed explained.

Thankfully, the SSA sent a letter anyway. Ed said many additional hours spent researching the matter with SSA personnel revealed that in order to open the claim on Ruth’s retirement benefits, the thieves had to supply the SSA with a short list of static identifiers about her, including her birthday, place of birth, mother’s maiden name, current address and phone number.

Unfortunately, most (if not all) of this data is available on a broad swath of the American populace for free online (think Zillow,, Facebook, etc.) or else for sale in the cybercrime underground for about the cost of a latte at Starbucks.

The Eckensteins thought the matter had been resolved until Jan. 14, when Ruth received a 1099 form from the SSA indicating they’d reported to the IRS that she had in fact received an $11,665 payment.

“We’ve emailed our tax guy for guidance on how to deal with this on our taxes,” Mr. Eckenstein wrote in an email to KrebsOnSecurity. “My wife logged into SSA portal and there was a note indicating that corrected/updated 1099s would be available at the end of the month. She’s not sure whether that message was specific to her or whether everyone’s seeing that.”


Identity thieves have been exploiting authentication weaknesses to divert retirement account funds almost since the SSA launched its portal eight years ago. But the crime really picked up in 2013, around the same time KrebsOnSecurity first began warning readers to register their own accounts at the MySSA portal. That uptick coincided with a move by the U.S. Treasury to start requiring that all beneficiaries receive payments through direct deposit (though the SSA says paper checks are still available to some beneficiaries under limited circumstances).

More than 34 million Americans now conduct business with the Social Security Administration (SSA) online. A story this week from Reuters says the SSA doesn’t track data on the prevalence of identity theft. Nevertheless, the agency assured the news outlet that its anti-fraud efforts have made the problem “very rare.”

But Reuters notes that a 2015 investigation by the SSA’s Office of Inspector General investigation identified more than 30,000 suspicious MySSA registrations, and more than 58,000 allegations of fraud related to MySSA accounts from February 2013 to February 2016.

“Those figures are small in the context of overall MySSA activity – but it will not seem small if it happens to you,” writes Mark Miller for Reuters.

The SSA has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Ed and Ruth’s experience notwithstanding, it’s still a good idea to set up a MySSA account — particularly if you or your spouse will be eligible to withdraw benefits soon. The agency has been trying to beef up online authentication for citizens logging into its MySSA portal. Last summer the SSA began requiring all users to enter a username and password in addition to a one-time security code sent their email or phone, although as previously reported here that authentication process could be far more robust.

The Reuters story reminds readers to periodically use the MySSA portal to make sure that your personal information – such as date of birth and mailing address – are correct. “For current beneficiaries, if you notice that a monthly payment has not arrived, you should notify the SSA immediately via the agency’s toll-free line (1-800-772-1213) or at your local field office,” Miller advised. “In most cases, the SSA will make you whole if the theft is reported quickly.”

Another option is to use the SSA’s “Block Electronic Access” feature, which blocks any automatic telephone or online access to your Social Security record – including by you (although it’s unclear if blocking access this way would have stopped ID thieves who manage to speak with a live SSA representative). To restore electronic access, you’ll need to contact the Social Security Administration and provide proof of your identity.

Nov 24 2017

Krebs on Security 2017-11-24 08:55:03

KrebsOnSecurity has sought to call attention to online services which expose sensitive consumer data if the user knows a handful of static details about a person that are broadly for sale in the cybercrime underground, such as name, date of birth, and Social Security Number. Perhaps the most eye-opening example of this is on display at, the Web site set up by the U.S. Department of Education for anyone interested in applying for federal student financial aid.

Update, Nov. 28, 12:34 p.m. ET: The Education Department says not all of the data elements mentioned below are accessible on a FAFSA applicant if someone merely knows the static details about that person. Read on for their response to this story.

Original story:

Short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA is an extremely lengthy and detailed form required at all colleges that accept and award federal aid to students.

Visitors to the login page for FAFSA have two options: Enter either the student’s FSA ID and password, or choose “enter the student’s information.” Selecting the latter brings up a prompt to enter the student’s first and last name, followed by their date of birth and Social Security Number.

Anyone who successfully supplies that information on a student who has applied for financial aid through FAFSA then gets to see a virtual colonoscopy of personal information on that individual and their family’s finances — including almost 200 different data elements.

The information returned includes all of these data fields:

1. Student’s Last Name:
2. Student’s First Name:
3. Student’s Middle Initial:
4. Student’s Permanent Mailing Address:
5. Student’s Permanent City:
6. Student’s Permanent State:
7. Student’s Permanent ZIP Code:
8. Student’s Social Security Number:
9. Student’s Date of Birth:
10. Student’s Telephone Number:
11. Student’s Driver’s License Number:
12. Student’s Driver’s License State:
13. Student’s E-mail Address:
14. Student’s Citizenship Status:
15. Student’s Alien Registration Number:
16. Student’s Marital Status:
17. Student’s Marital Status Date:
18. Student’s State of Legal Residence:
19. Was Student a Legal Resident Before January 1, 2012?
20. Student’s Legal Residence Date:
21. Is the Student Male or Female?
22. Register Student With Selective Service System?
23. Drug Conviction Affecting Eligibility?
24. Parent 1 Educational Level:
25. Parent 2 Educational Level:
26. High School or Equivalent Completed?
27a. Student’s High School Name:
27b. Student’s High School City:
27c. Student’s High School State:
28. First Bachelor’s Degree before 2017-2018 School Year?
29. Student’s Grade Level in College in 2017-2018:
30. Type of Degree/Certificate:
31. Interested in Work-study?
32. Student Filed 2015 Income Tax Return?
33. Student’s Type of 2015 Tax Form Used:
34. Student’s 2015 Tax Return Filing Status:
35. Student Eligible to File a 1040A or 1040EZ?
36. Student’s 2015 Adjusted Gross Income:
37. Student’s 2015 U.S. Income Tax Paid:
38. Student’s 2015 Exemptions Claimed:
39. Student’s 2015 Income Earned from Work:
40. Spouse’s 2015 Income Earned from Work:
41. Student’s Total of Cash, Savings, and Checking Accounts:
42. Student’s Net Worth of Current Investments:
43. Student’s Net Worth of Businesses/Investment Farms:
44a. Student’s Education Credits:
44b. Student’s Child Support Paid:
44c. Student’s Taxable Earnings from Need-Based Employment Programs:
44d. Student’s College Grant and Scholarship Aid Reported in AGI:
44e. Student’s Taxable Combat Pay Reported in AGI:
44f. Student’s Cooperative Education Earnings:
45a. Student’s Payments to Tax-Deferred Pensions & Retirement Savings:
45b. Student’s Deductible Payments to IRA/Keogh/Other:
45c. Student’s Child Support Received:
45d. Student’s Tax Exempt Interest Income:
45e. Student’s Untaxed Portions of IRA Distributions:
45f. Student’s Untaxed Portions of Pensions:
45g. Student’s Housing, Food, & Living Allowances:
45h. Student’s Veterans Noneducation Benefits:
45i. Student’s Other Untaxed Income or Benefits:
45j. Money Received or Paid on Student’s Behalf:
46. Student Born Before January 1, 1994?
47. Is Student Married?
48. Working on Master’s or Doctorate in 2017-2018?
49. Is Student on Active Duty in U.S. Armed Forces?
50. Is Student a Veteran?
51. Does Student Have Children He/She Supports?
52. Does Student Have Dependents Other than Children/Spouse?
53. Parents Deceased?/Student Ward of Court?/In Foster Care?
54. Is or Was Student an Emancipated Minor?
55. Is or Was Student in Legal Guardianship?
56. Is Student an Unaccompanied Homeless Youth as Determined by High School/Homeless Liaison?
57. Is Student an Unaccompanied Homeless Youth as Determined by HUD?
58. Is Student an Unaccompanied Homeless Youth as Determined by Director of Homeless Youth Center?
59. Parents’ Marital Status:
60. Parents’ Marital Status Date:
61. Parent 1 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) Social Security Number:
62. Parent 1 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) Last Name:
63. Parent 1 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) First Name Initial:
64. Parent 1 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) Date of Birth:
65. Parent 2 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) Social Security Number:
66. Parent 2 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) Last Name:
67. Parent 2 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) First Name Initial:
68. Parent 2 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) Date of Birth:
69. Parents’ E-mail Address:
70. Parents’ State of Legal Residence:
71. Were Parents Legal Residents Before January 1, 2012?
72. Parents’ Legal Residence Date:
73. Parents’ Number of Family Members in 2017-2018:
74. Parents’ Number in College in 2017-2018 (Parents Excluded):
75. Parents Received Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income?
76. Parents Received SNAP?
77. Parents Received Free/Reduced Price Lunch?
78. Parents Received TANF?
79. Parents Received WIC?
80. Parents Filed 2015 Income Tax Return?
81. Parents’ Type of 2015 Tax Form Used:
82. Parents’ 2015 Tax Return Filing Status:
83. Parents Eligible to File a 1040A or 1040EZ?
84. Is Parent a Dislocated Worker?
85. Parents’ 2015 Adjusted Gross Income:
86. Parents’ 2015 U.S. Income Tax Paid:
87. Parents’ 2015 Exemptions Claimed:
88. Parent 1 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) 2015 Income Earned from Work:
89. Parent 2 (Father’s/Mother’s/Stepparent’s) 2015 Income Earned from Work:
90. Parents’ Total of Cash, Savings, and Checking Accounts:
91. Parents’ Net Worth of Current Investments:
92. Parents’ Net Worth of Businesses/Investment Farms:
93a. Parents’ Education Credits:
93b. Parents’ Child Support Paid:
93c. Parents’ Taxable Earnings from Need-Based Employment Programs:
93d. Parents’ College Grant and Scholarship Aid Reported in AGI:
93e. Parents’ Taxable Combat Pay Reported in AGI:
93f. Parents’ Cooperative Education Earnings:
94a. Parents’ Payments to Tax-Deferred Pensions & Retirement Savings:
94b. Parents’ Deductible Payments to IRA/Keogh/Other:
94c. Parents’ Child Support Received:
94d. Parents’ Tax Exempt Interest Income:
94e. Parents’ Untaxed Portions of IRA Distributions:
94f. Parents’ Untaxed Portions of Pensions:
94g. Parents’ Housing, Food, & Living Allowances:
94h. Parents’ Veterans Noneducation Benefits:
94i. Parents’ Other Untaxed Income or Benefits:
95. Student’s Number of Family Members in 2017-2018:
96. Student’s Number in College in 2017-2018:
97. Student Received Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income?
98. Student Received SNAP?
99. Student Received Free/Reduced Price Lunch?
100. Student Received TANF?
101. Student Received WIC?
102. Is Student or Spouse a Dislocated Worker?
103a. First Federal School Code:
103b. First Housing Plans:
103c. Second Federal School Code:
103d. Second Housing Plans:
103e. Third Federal School Code:
103f. Third Housing Plans:
103g. Fourth Federal School Code:
103h. Fourth Housing Plans:
103i. Fifth Federal School Code:
103j. Fifth Housing Plans:
103k. Sixth Federal School Code:
103l. Sixth Housing Plans:
103m. Seventh Federal School Code:
103n. Seventh Housing Plans:
103o. Eighth Federal School Code:
103p. Eighth Housing Plans:
103q. Ninth Federal School Code:
103r. Ninth Housing Plans:
103s. Tenth Federal School Code:
103t. Tenth Housing Plans:
104. Date Completed:
105. Signed By:
106. Preparer’s Social Security Number:
107. Preparer’s Employer Identification Number (EIN):
108. Preparer’s Signature:

According to the Education Department, nearly 20 million students filled out this form in the 2015/2016 application cycle.

Update: The process described above was based on a demonstration this author saw while sharing a screen with a KrebsOnSecurity reader who had a family member apply for aid through FAFSA. But an Education Department spokesperson took strong exception to my experience, saying that while someone armed with an applicant’s SSN and date of birth would be able to view some of the less sensitive data elements related to an application that has already been submitted and processed, seeing the more sensitive data requires and additional authentication step.

The spokesperson said the data is displayed across several pages that require manual advancement, and that before the pages with financial data are shown the visitor is prompted to supply a username and password that all users are required to create when they start the application process. The agency said that without those credentials, the system should not display the rest of the data.

In cases where a student has saved but not completed an application, the spokesperson said, the applicant is prompted to create a “save key,” or temporary password that needs to be supplied before the financial data is displayed.

Original story: What indications are there that ID thieves might already be aware of this personal data treasure trove? In March 2017, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disabled an automated tool on its Web site that was used to help students and their families apply for federal financial aid — citing evidence that identity thieves were abusing it to siphon data used to commit tax refund fraud with the IRS.

The IRS found that identity thieves were abusing the automated tool — which pulled data directly from the FAFSA Web site — in order to learn the adjusted gross income (AGI) of applicant families. The AGI is crucial to successfully filing a tax refund request in someone’s name at the IRS.

On Oct. 1, the IRS brought its FAFSA data retrieval tool back online, adding additional authentication measures. In addition, the AGI data is now masked when it is electronically transferred into the FAFSA application.

Think it’s hard to find someone’s SSN and DOB? Think again. There are a multitude of Web sites on the open Internet and Dark Web alike that sell access to SSN and DOB data on hundreds of millions of Americans — all for the price of about $4-5 worth of Bitcoin.

Somehow, we need to move away from allowing online access to such a deep vein of consumer data just by supplying static data points that are broadly compromised in a thousand breaches and on sale very cheaply in the cybercrime underground.

Until that happens, anyone who is applying for federal student aid or has a child who applied should strongly consider taking several steps:

-Get on a schedule to request a free copy of your credit report. By law, consumers are entitled to a free copy of their report from each of the major bureaus once a year. Put it on your calendar to request a copy of your file every three to four months, each time from a different credit bureau. Dispute any unauthorized or suspicious activity. This is where credit monitoring services are useful: Part of their service is to help you sort this out with the credit bureaus, so if you’re signed up for credit monitoring make them do the hard work for you.

Consider placing a “security freeze” on your credit files with the major credit bureaus. See this tutorial about why a security freeze — also known as a “credit freeze,” may be more effective than credit monitoring in blocking ID thieves from assuming your identity to open up new lines of credit. Keep in mind that having a security freeze on your credit file won’t stop thieves from committing tax refund fraud in your name; the only real defense against that is to file your taxes as early as possible — before the fraudsters can do it for you.

Monitor, then freeze. Take advantage of any free credit monitoring available to you, and then freeze your credit file with the four major bureaus. Instructions for doing that are here.