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IRS Head Says Cybersecurity Problems Leave Taxpayers Vulnerable


The head of the IRS has some not-so-encouraging words for taxpayers. Fraudulent returns continue to plague the agency and are causing problems for hundreds of thousands of Americans. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says the computer systems he oversees are under assault. Koskinen told the Senate Finance Committee that hackers try over a million times each day to get at the files and data on taxpayers they contain. And he says the threats have become more sophisticated.


JOHN KOSKINEN: Problem used to be random individuals filing a few dozen or a few hundred false tax returns at a time. Now we're dealing more and more with organized crime syndicates here and in other countries. They are gathering, as the chairman noted, almost unimaginable amounts of personal data from sources outside the IRS so they can do a better job of impersonating taxpayers.

NAYLOR: If the crooks can impersonate legitimate taxpayers using their Social Security numbers and other information, they can file false tax returns and receive real money from the government. The IRS unwittingly helped the bad guys with a link on its website, since removed, that enable people to retrieve back tax information. A subsequent fix created yet another vulnerability.

The agency now says nearly three quarters of a million taxpayers had their information hacked, and hundreds of thousands of additional attempts had been unsuccessful. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden criticized the IRS for its lack of security.


RON WYDEN: So after leaving the front door open, the IRS left the back door open as well. There is simply no excuse for this.

NAYLOR: The IRS has been trying to harden its cyber security, but like other government departments, including Homeland Security, it has a problem luring and keeping top tech talent in an extremely competitive marketplace. A program that allowed it to streamline the hiring process for key IT positions has not been renewed by Congress. Koskinen told the panel that without it...


KOSKINEN: When you tell somebody, we'd love to hire you; we got a great position for you; now, if you'll just sit around for three to six months, we'll get back to you; and in the meantime, fill out the applications and apply for the job - needless to say, most of those people aren't around when we come back.

NAYLOR: The IRS is also fighting to overcome bureaucratic roadblocks to improve its cyber security. An official told the panel it will be another year before the agency receives a key software upgrade developed by Homeland Security to protect government computers from hackers. But Koskinen says taxpayers who have yet to file their returns should still e-file. It's quicker, he says, and crooks steal paper returns, too. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.