Tax season is miserable for many because it means having to cut a check to the IRS. But it’s not just Uncle Sam who’s interested in your money. Scammers are also looking to get paid, and they’ll do it by stealing personal information. Employees tasked with preparing tax forms, like human resources (HR) professionals, are prime targets of scams. Using various forms of subterfuge, scammers convince HR to hand over private information about an employee, which they’ll then use to file false tax refund claims. The surge in tax scams has prompted the IRS to issue multiple alerts and host National Tax Security Awareness Week last December to educate the public about tax-related cybercriminal activity.
What’s the scam?
Scammers impersonate people whom the victim is likely to trust, like a well-known service provider (e.g., FedEx) or a person with a legitimate need for access to sensitive information (e.g., an IRS agent). This is known as “spoofing.” Sometimes a “spoofed” email tries to get the recipient to open an attachment containing a virus or click on a link to a malicious site (which might look legitimate). A specific type of spoofing attack known as “phishing” aims to convince the victim to divulge personal or financial information. For example, a phisher posing as an employee might email the HR department for a copy of his W-2 form. Even more targeted is a “spear phishing” attack aimed at a specific individual. The IRS has warned of spear phishing schemes involving emails to an HR professional sent from the spoofed email address of a C-suite executive. The email will ask the HR professional to send a tax form or to provide information about an employee supposedly for a tax filing. Once the scammer has the information, he or she will file a tax refund under the employee’s name.
The best way to avoid being a victim of a phishing attack is to raise awareness. Employees should be regularly trained to practice the following defensive measures:
- Be suspicious of all email requests for confidential information, even if they come from high-level personnel within the company. Tell-tale signs are spelling or grammatical errors or language that the sender doesn’t typically use.
- Confirm requests for confidential information by calling the requester.
- Avoid sending confidential information electronically. Hand deliver the information or send it by mail to a verified address.
- If confidential information has to be transmitted electronically, encrypt it before sending.
- Never send confidential information by hitting the “reply” button. If an email is spoofed, the reply email will go to the imposter. Instead, compose a new email and manually type in the email addresses of the recipient.
- Apply extreme caution when opening attachments. Never open an attachment with the .exe extension. Note that an attachment might be altered to look like an ordinary word processing document, spreadsheet, or PDF. When in doubt, send your IT department a screenshot of the email and consult with them on what to do next.
Responding to a security breach
In the unfortunate event that a company falls victim to a phishing attack, it should immediately gather facts about the incident including the number of employees involved, where the affected employees are located, what information was stolen, and whether the stolen information has been put to use. Consult with a lawyer to determine next steps. In Hawaii (as in many states), a business is legally obligated to provide notice to victims of a security breach. Experienced counsel can navigate the company through data breach notification laws and advise on liability and remedial measures to take.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently took the unprecedented position that an employer violated federal law by failing to engage its employees’ union in collective bargaining regarding its response to a data breach. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was the target of a 2014 data breach affecting over 800,000 of its current and former employees. The NLRB filed complaints against the USPS claiming that it executed its response to the breach without engaging in collective bargaining with the union. That’s a violation of National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provisions mandating collective bargaining for any issue that relates to the “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment,” the NLRA alleged.
The NLRB complaints specifically allege that the USPS violated the NLRA by failing to collectively bargain with the union about the impact of the breach on union members. The USPS also allegedly violated the NLRA by unilaterally providing a remedy for the breach (one year of credit monitoring services and fraud insurance at no cost to employees) without giving prior notice to the union and providing it with an opportunity to negotiate the remedy. The NLRB complaints arose from charges filed by the American Postal Workers Union and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association regarding the manner in which the USPS handled the breach.
This marks the first time the NLRB has suggested that data breach response and notification measures affecting employees relate “to the wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” under the NLRA. If the NLRB’s position is found to have merit, that potentially makes the breach response process more complicated and costly for unionized organizations. Union negotiations would need to be conducted at the same time the organization is dealing with fallout from the data breach, such as repairing damage to internal systems, investigating the breach, and complying with breach notification laws. Union negotiations could put tremendous pressure on organizations trying to comply with data breach laws that require notification within a short time period after discovery of the breach. There is also a heightened risk of leaks to the press if organizations must notify unions before giving formal notification as required by law.
The NLRB’s complaints against the USPS reinforce the urgency of developing well-crafted breach response plans. Union organizations might wish to add items to their response plans that engage employee unions in the response process. Another precautionary measure is to solicit the input of the union in developing acceptable breach response protocols before a breach occurs rather than in the midst of a crisis situation.
The New York Times recently reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton used a personal email address for work and personal matters while she served as Secretary of State. Many employees could probably appreciate why Ms. Clinton chose to use a private email address for work purposes. She enjoyed the convenience of carrying one mobile device instead of two. That’s the same reason the Bring Your Own Device movement has been rapidly gaining momentum.
The convenience of commingling professional and personal online accounts comes at a price. One danger is unauthorized disclosure of confidential information. Work-related information stored in an employee’s personal online account is not subject to security measures like firewalls, anti-virus software, and metadata scrubbing programs. Private online accounts may be vulnerable to cyberattacks, putting the confidentiality of their contents at risk. While such records might not concern national security matters as in the Clinton controversy, they could contain personnel information, medical history, or trade secrets, the disclosure of which could violate data privacy laws like HIPAA and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, not to mention hurting a company’s competitive edge or creating a public relations debacle.
Another risk is noncompliance with recordkeeping policies. Work rules dictating how long work files are kept before they’re disposed help organizations manage the task of responding to information inquiries like discovery requests in litigation. In some jurisdictions, an organization’s failure to produce a document in discovery because it was destroyed in compliance with the organization’s document retention policy generally is not considered unlawful destruction of evidence. (Note: Hawaii’s court rules were amended this year to recognize such a defense). But spotty enforcement of a document retention policy could destroy that defense. Popular ways of transferring work files include forwarding them to a personal email address or uploading them to a personal cloud storage account. Such practices could result in work files being kept beyond their authorized retention period, thus casting doubt on whether an organization actually follows its document retention policy.
Managing these risks begins with adopting a formal policy on use of personal accounts for work purposes and training employees to follow the policy. Without a policy in place, employees might have few qualms about using their personal accounts for work. Consult with a lawyer with data privacy experience to ensure that your policy manages legal risks.
If your company decides to prohibit the transfer of work data to external locations, enforce that policy diligently. Work with your IT department or outside vendors to implement physical and software safeguards against unauthorized transfers. Conduct audits to ensure compliance with the policy.
Another strategy is to offer solutions that allow employees to work outside of the office conveniently without having to use their personal accounts. Consider hosting a private cloud storage site where employees can share files in a secured environment under your control. Also popular is virtual desktop software that allows employees to access their workstation remotely in a controlled environment.
Don’t wait until your employees’ data handling practices make the headlines before taking action to protect the confidentiality of your work files.
Target. Home Depot. Neiman Marcus. This isn’t a list of places to shop. These companies were hit with some of the biggest data breach incidents of 2014. And, as the recent hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment demonstrates, it’s not just the customer information that gets compromised in cyberattacks—employees can also be the victims.
In November, hackers broke into Sony’s computer systems and stole personal information of over 47,000 current and former employees, celebrities, and freelancers. The information included personal emails, budgets, salary information, human resource records, and other private (and embarrassing) documents. Some of the stolen information was leaked online, including a spreadsheet containing names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of over 3,000 employees. Buzzfeed reports that the 40 gb data dump contains email exchanges between Sony and its employees regarding very sensitive matters, such as their medical treatments, disciplinary action, and inter-office romance.
The ease with which the hackers did their dirty work is eye-opening. The attack was carried out with widely available malware. It didn’t help that Sony’s security measures were shockingly subpar. Sony had failed to encrypt the leaked files. One of the stolen files containing login credentials to Sony computers and servers and other online accounts was quite obviously named “Passwords.”
Sony apparently made a conscious decision not to beef up its security. In 2007, Sony’s then-executive director information security, Jason Spaltro, said in an interview that it was a “valid business decision to accept the risk” of a security breach, and that he would not invest $10 million to avoid a possible $1 million in loss. A team of just 11 employees was responsible for maintaining the security systems for Sony’s 7,000 employees. A September 2014 security audit report showed gaps in Sony’s security procedures, such as failure to monitor one firewall and more than 100 other devices.
In the aftermath of the attack, Sony is facing four lawsuits. Three of the lawsuits allege that Sony failed to take adequate precautions to guard against known weaknesses in the security of its computer systems. Another lawsuit accuses Sony of waiting too long to notify employees that their personal data had been stolen.
What should companies do to protect themselves against a data breach like Sony’s? Be sure to develop administrative, physical, and technical safeguards over personal information handled by your company. At minimum, use encryption technology. If a third party handles personal information of your employees or customers, contractually require them to exercise reasonable care and to report security breaches immediately. Another precautionary measure is to conduct periodic security audits and risk analyses of information systems.
If a data breach involves a business located in Hawaii or one that does business in Hawai‘i and maintains or possesses personal information of Hawaii residents, Hawaii law requires the business to notify persons affected by the breach. If notice is provided to 1,000 persons or more at once, the State Office of Consumer Protection and credit reporting agencies must also be notified. Companies should prepare data breach procedures in advance so that a clearly charted process for complying with applicable notification laws is available in the chaos ensuing after a data breach incident.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just announced that Snapchat agreed to settle charges that it deceived consumers about how its popular mobile message app worked and what personal user data it collected. (Read the FTC’s press release here). Part of Snapchat’s appeal was a feature enabling users to control how long a message could be seen by the recipient. After the designated time limit expires, the message is destroyed, much like the mission briefings in Mission Impossible. At least that’s what Snapchat told users. According to the FTC, Snapchat misled consumers because the app didn’t exactly work the way it said it did. The FTC’s complaint against Snapchat (read it here) included these allegations:
- Recipients of a “snap” (a Snapchat message) could save the snap using tools outside of the app. Snapchat apparently stored video snaps in a location on the recipient’s mobile device outside of the app’s secure “sandbox.” This enabled recipients to find and save video snaps by connecting their mobile device to a computer and using simple file browsing tools. Another way to bypass the deletion feature was to use apps that connected to Snapchat’s API to download and save snaps.
- Snapchat told users that if a message recipient took a snapshot of the snap, the sender would be notified. In fact, the screenshot detection mention could be bypassed.
- Snapchat collected geolocation data of users when it said it would not.
- Snapchat told users to enter their mobile number to find friends who also use the app, implying that the user’s mobile phone number was the only information it collected. Without the user’s knowledge, Snapchat also collected the names and phone numbers of all contacts in the address book on the user’s phone.
So what’s the significance of the settlement? Here are a few quick takeaways.
- Descriptions of mobile apps in an app marketplace like iTunes App Store or Google Play are product descriptions that could be the basis for false advertising claims.
- Take into account exploits and workarounds when drafting privacy policies and product descriptions. This includes software that uses the app’s API.
- The FTC is getting more active in pursuing false advertising claims against mobile app makers. In December of last year, the FTC settled charges that the developer of the “Brightest Flashlight Free” app deceived consumers about how their geolocation information would be shared with advertising networks and other third parties. The FTC’s interest in suing companies that allow a data breach to occur is also a growing concern, especially after the New Jersey federal district court’s decision in FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp., recognizing the FTC’s authority to prosecute cases where a company is alleged to have failed to maintain “reasonable and appropriate data security for consumers’ sensitive personal information.”
- Information transmitted over the Internet is rarely, if ever, gone forever. Somehow, somewhere, electronic data can be retrieved.