By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
Last week, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen reportedly said that the the FAFSA Data Retrieval Tool was removed from the federal financial aid application due to “criminal activity.” The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has opened a criminal investigation into possible misuse of the tool, according to The Wall Street Journal. This apparent investigation is still underway, but the development confirms there are legitimate concerns that necessitated temporarily removing the FAFSA IRS DRT to protect tax filers from possible fraud. NCAN strongly supports the restoration of the DRT, but calls on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the IRS to do so in a way that is both secure and does not create barriers to usage by low-income filers.
The IRS and ED statement says officials are dedicated to the restoration of the FAFSA IRS DRT. The DRT must protect individuals’ tax information, but it also must be accessible to low-income families to support FAFSA completion. Before its removal, FAFSA filers accessed the IRS DRT by using their name, Social Security number, and address – which must be an exact match to tax records, including abbreviations – to access their tax information. For low-income students, who are more likely to frequently move, even figuring out the correct address format (for example, St. vs. Street) could be challenging.
A 2015 cyberattack on the IRS resulted in 330,000 taxpayer accounts harmed and attempts on another 280,000 accounts. Following this attack, the IRS relaunched the Get Transcript tool with higher security requirements, including a mobile phone number in users’ name, an email address, and either a mortgage, home equity line of credit, auto loan, or credit card. It is the great concern of NCAN that the IRS DRT will follow a similar fate. The IRS and ED could restore the DRT to students with such higher security measures that low-income families will not be able to use it. If these types of requirements are added to the new, “more secure” IRS DRT, then it will not be a tool to help low-income families.
Trying to thread this needle between a secure tool and one that is still accessible should be a top concern of the lawmakers who are in contact with both the IRS and ED, including Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and other elected officials publicly calling into question the management of this situation. Those leaders include the signatories of a joint letter from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Education and Workforce Committee, as well as officials from the House Committee on Government and Oversight, who co-signed one letter with the House education committee to the IRS' Koskinen and another to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.