IRS tax tool suspendedRight now is crunch time for high school seniors and college students all across the country who are applying for financial aid to help cover the cost of college, but a big wrench has been thrown into the middle of the process for some due to the temporary suspension of an IRS tax tool used by many to complete the complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. According to a joint statement released on March 9 by the U.S. Education Department and the IRS, the data retrieval tool (DRT), which FAFSA applicants can use to obtain and automatically fill in necessary income tax information, has been temporarily suspended as a measure of precaution due to concerns of misuse by identity thieves. Keep reading to learn how exactly this IRS tax tool can be exploited by cybercriminals, who might be affected by this suspension and what alternatives there are to help students complete their financial aid applications on time.

What is the DRT and how can identity thieves potentially exploit it?

The DRT was developed to allow students and parents access to the necessary income tax information to complete their FAFSA, which is a crucial form needed to determine how much federal, state and institutional aid a student is eligible to receive. Although neither the IRS nor the Education Department has stated exactly how they believe identity thieves are using the DRT, an unnamed source who spoke to cybersecurity blogger Brian Krebs said that the tool was being used to look up the adjusted gross income (AGI) of specific people. This information is not only needed to complete the FAFSA, but it is also necessary for filing tax returns, which is likely why there are concerns that cybercriminals are exploiting the DRT to complete fraudulent tax forms. Fortunately, the IRS has said it believes this is an isolated issue and no action is necessary on the part of taxpayers or people who have used the DRT to complete their FAFSA.

Who is affected by the suspension of this IRS tax tool?

The suspension of this IRS tax tool can potentially impact any student attempting to apply for financial aid with FAFSA, but students who are low-income, transient or don’t live with the parent(s) whose tax information they need are likely to be the most affected. In fact, the DRT’s existence is thanks in part to changes which went into effect this past October to make the FAFSA easier to apply for, thus helping more students get the financial aid they need to attend college. Although it’s still possible for the FAFSA to be successfully completed by manually entering the necessary tax information, students who can’t access this information for whatever reason may find themselves in trouble. Additionally, some might be running out of time to make deadlines for financial aid applications that could jeopardize their chances at getting the aid they need to attend school.

What options do students and their families have?

The Education Department reminded FAFSA applicants in its joint statement with the IRS that the online applications for both FAFSA and income-driven repayment plans are still accessible, and people can finish them by inputting the information manually. At this time, there is no available time frame for when the DRT will be back up and running, so students and families should make alternative plans to get the necessary data if they have yet to complete their FAFSA. The president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administration (NASFAA) has called for the Education Department to take steps to help ease the burden now on students’ shoulders, so that there aren’t issues when it comes to deadlines and difficulty completing the FAFSA.

The IRS has also suggested that families use its Get Transcript tool to obtain copies of their tax returns if they aren’t able to get one elsewhere. Some people may remember that Get Transcript was shut down in 2015 as a result of fraudulent activity which exposed the information of more than 700,000 people. It was relaunched in June 2016 with promises of strengthened security from the IRS. If you are concerned about security when it comes to using online tools or sites to request prior-year tax information, you can also contact the IRS by phone or postal mail, though these methods will obviously take longer.

How can students and families protect themselves?

When it comes to tax identity theft, there’s no way to know for sure that you’ve been a victim until after a crook has used your information to file for a fraudulent tax return. That’s why it’s important to file your taxes as soon as possible to try and beat anyone with your data to the punch. Unfortunately, with the plethora of data breaches and other types of identity theft that happen all year round, it’s likely that your information is somewhere out there. So far, the IRS has not disclosed any stolen information or other issues that individuals need to worry about with regards to the shutdown of DRT. However, the agency doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to transparency or security, so it’s best for people to be on their guard at all times. In addition to brushing up on the various tax-related scams that target people this time of year, it’s worth noting other types of scams you might encounter. Students, in particular, are susceptible to scholarship scams, rental scams and much more as they head toward new school years.

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