FAFSA hacking puts student information at risk

By Matthew Gulick

In March, unknown criminals compromised an Internal Revenue Service and Department of Education tool, giving them access to the personal information of almost 100,000 taxpayers.

The data-retrieval tool is used to help students fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), expediting the process by connecting IRS and DOE forms. By accessing it, the criminals acquired information that they used to fill out roughly 8,000 fraudulent tax return forms, receiving $30 million of refunds from the federal government.

Maggie Mittuch, Associate Vice President for Student Financial Services, described how these people made money from the process. Mittuch told The Trail that they used individuals’ protected information to file a form as that person, receiving their return.

In response to the hack the Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service suspended the tool, saying that it will be available again in October. According to the agencies this does not entirely prevent access to federal student aid. Instead people must “manually provide the requested financial information from copies of their tax returns,” IRS commissioner John Koskinen said in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee.

“We started working with education in October, telling them that we were very concerned that that system could be utilized by criminals, but on the other hand we recognize that 12-15 million applicants also use the convenience app … so Education and we [sic] worked together to develop a solution,” he said. Implementation of their solution seems a long term goal, however.

Koskinen claimed removing the tool was the only way to ensure protection of secure information.

“There was no way we could satisfy ourselves that opening that avenue again would be free from risk … and our highest priority is to make sure we protect taxpayers and their identity as well as against fraudulent refunds,” Koskinen said.

“The thing that is the saddest to me is that we have these tools we use to figure out how to utilize scarce resources over the wide U.S. population” VP Mittuch said. “It is a question of how our government agencies are ensuring those systems are as healthy and secure as they would be in the private sector.” Which agency the blame rests with remains unclear or unsaid.

Emma Casey, junior, was concerned with the University’s lack of communication on this issue.

“It’s interesting that we didn’t hear anything about this from the school considering how it affects students. I don’t remember seeing any campus-wide email or announcement about the hacking,” Casey said.

According to Mittuch, students enrolling in Puget Sound for the first time in fall 2017 remain largely unaffected by the hack. As many students make applications for the University earlier in the year, they filed their forms before the agencies took down the tool.

In response to Casey’s concern, Mittuch responded in an email, “Actually the shutdown of the IRS data retrieval tool has NOT had a significant impact on student at Puget Sound because most of our students, and certainly our first year students, had already completed their FAFSA’s (early FAFSA and Prior Prior Year allowed families to start FAFSA on October 1, instead of the historical January 1). There is some impact for those selected for verification of FAFSA data by the federal processor because those students must now provide a copy of their 2015 tax return with their other documents to us rather than allowing us to download their tax transcript.”

She added, “There are some families still in the process of application, mainly at state and community colleges.”

The VP claims that these students are most inconvenienced by the security breach as they fill out the DOE form using previous IRS tax info.

“Removing the tool feels like it would be a substantial barrier for people who are pressed for time and financial resources,” first-year Emma McAllister said.

“The language surrounding those forms can be very complicated. Expecting people who are unfamiliar with tax codes or the way they work to fill out the entire form is a lot to ask, especially when they don’t have access to resources for deciphering it,” junior Aaron Jurasevich said. As a business major, Jurasevich has studied tax documents in his classes.

Many students view education as the means to a better future, but because of the unsafe tool these people now have another barrier to achieving that goal.