On March 1, the IRS issued an alert to payroll and human resources professionals regarding a phishing email scheme that purports to be from company executives and requests personal information on employees. The IRS said this scheme is part of a “surge” in phishing emails seen this year.

Many companies have fallen victim to this scheme, in which payroll or other human resources officers mistakenly email sensitive payroll data including Forms W-2, which contain Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information, to cybercriminals posing as company executives.

The IRS provided some of the language used in these phishing emails:

  • Kindly send me the individual 2015 W-2 (PDF) and earnings summary of all W-2 of our company staff for a quick review.
  • Can you send me the updated list of employees with full details (Name, Social Security Number, Date of Birth, Home Address, Salary).
  • I want you to send me the list of W-2 copy of employees wage and tax statement for 2015, I need them in PDF file type, you can send it as an attachment. Kindly prepare the lists and email them to me asap.

The emails “spoof” actual company executives, in that they appear as legitimate requests for employee information. Cybercriminals may use personal information to file fraudulent tax returns for refunds.

As a best practice, we recommend that personnel:

  • Confirm any request for sensitive employee information verbally with HR;
  • Always send sensitive information in an encrypted format;
  • Send passwords separately, either verbally or out-of-channel (such as via text message to a separately verified number); and
  • Confirm that the email domain on an email request for employee information is the expected corporate domain.