IRS warns tax preparers: Watch out for ransomware

Tax season is just around the corner—and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is warning tax preparers to be on the lookout for ransomware attacks.

The notice comes at a time when digital attackers are increasingly targeting tax professionals in an attempt to steal sensitive client information. Tax preparation firms should work with reputable external security pros or their internal IT teams to bolster defenses. They should also prepare for the worst by testing backup and disaster recovery systems.

IRS aims to increase ransomware awareness
Tax professionals are lucrative targets for the cybercriminals who spread ransomware. That’s why the IRS is taking steps to raise awareness and offer advice on how tax preparers can protect themselves from the file-encrypting computer viruses.

The IRS last year joined forces with state tax agencies and the private sector to launch the “Protect Your Clients, Protect Yourself” campaign. This summer the IRS launched a 10-week awareness campaign called “Don’t Take the Bait.”

“Tax professionals face an array of security issues that could threaten their clients and their business,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told KSL.com. “We urge people to take the time to understand these threats and take the steps to protect themselves. Don’t just assume your computers and systems are safe.”

A ‘very real’ threat
The tax industry’s concerns about ransomware and other cybercrimes aren’t new. Just ask Susan Speirs, CEO of the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants. Speirs says numerous tax firms have fallen victim to phishing and ransomware attacks, including  scams where fraudsters impersonated the IRS.

The threat cybercriminals poses to tax preparers is “very real,” Speirs told KSL.com, adding that she believes cybercriminals target tax preparers because they have access to clients’ sensitive personal information and financial data.

“My computer held thousands of Social Security numbers, addresses and other pertinent information,” she said. “It would be a gold mine [for criminals].”

The latest phishing scam
In early August, the IRS warned tax preparers about a new phishing email scam targeting tax preparers that is designed to steal passwords. The phishing emails include a subject line that reads, “Software Support Update.” The message appears to originate from a trusted software provider, but don’t be fooled because it’s fake.

“The e-mail informs the recipients that due to a recent software upgrade, the preparer must revalidate their login credentials,” the IRS alert explains. “It provides a link to a fictitious website that mirrors the software provider’s actual login page.”

Guard against ransomware
Tax preparation firms can protect themselves against phishing and ransomware by partnering with external security experts. They can also strengthen their security defenses by educating their employees about phishing attacks. It’s also a good idea to disable macros in all Microsoft Office files received via email; develop a robust patch management strategy for all workstations and IT assets; and manage administrator access privileges carefully.

Tax preparation firms should also back up files regularly to ensure that no data is lost in an attack.

Get more advice on how to protect your business from ransomware today.

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