By Kaela Carpenter
Earlier in April, the I.R.S. (Internal Revenue Service) said that the personal information of up to 100,000 people could have been obtained by hackers through a scheme to gather information through the tool that college students use to apply for financial aid, or FAFSA. Because of budget cuts and staff shortages, the I.R.S. has struggled to increase its defenses against new cyber threats. In 2015, an even bigger breach of privacy happened when hackers gained the tax return information of over 300,000 people. They then used this data to file tax returns and make money.
As a result of the attack, the I.R.S. shut down its Data Retrieval Tool, “which families used to import tax information of Fafsa. The shutdown, at the height of financial aid application season, caused outrage among parents and students trying to fill out the complicated Fafsa forms.” The agency realized last fall that it was even possible for hackers to access this information, however they did not shut down the program until early March.
This delay has John Koskinen, the I.R.S. commissioner in the hot seat because he took so long to act. Many republicans are calling for Mr. Koskinen to resign before the end of his term in November, but Mr. Koskinen defends that:
“he did not want to cut off a tool that millions of financial aid applicants use before the evidence of foul play was clear. After monitoring activity in the system, the I.R.S. noticed an unusual spike of unfinished applications in February that suggested criminals were at work.”
Koskinen then goes on to say that he had no intention of stepping down. I understand why Koskinen would want to wait until there was concrete evidence to shut down the whole system, however doing so resulted in 100,000 people’s information being stolen. I believe that it would have been smarter to shut it down as soon as they realized that it was possible for hackers to access the information, so that they could fix the problem before it even became a problem.
What This Means for Students
While the shutdown helps protects other people’s information, it causes a lot of problem for the upcoming college application and financial aid season. Shut down in early March and not scheduled to open until October, the Fafsa shutdown is going to cause problems with most universities financial aid deadlines which is late March. Universities use Fafsa to determine how to distribute their financial aid to the students. While congress is urging the universities to be more flexible with their deadlines, not much progress has been made.
The Fafsa process itself is already a complicated process even with the online tools, and now without the tools it will even harder for students and their parents to get federal financial aid. The use of the I.R.S.’s Data Retrieval Tool has become an extremely vital part of the financial-aid application process and without it applying for financial aid becomes complex.
Students now have to go through an even more difficult process and submit a paper copy of their “tax returns, pay stubs or other acceptable forms of documentation explained online during the application process.” Congress, along with asking for more flexible application deadlines, is also asking Universities to put notices of the Data Retrieval Tool’s shutdown on their website and provide information on how to apply for financial aid without it. I.R.S. and USED advise Fafsa and student loan applicants to “access the tax software used to prepare the return or contact their tax preparer to obtain a copy.”
Many students are extremely reliant on federal financial aid in order to attend universities. With the application process becoming more complex, and no progress with extending university application deadlines, it puts these students at risk of not receiving their financial aid. The I.R.S. needs to react quickly and either fix the Data Retrieval Tool’s problems or come up with a better solution than just having every student in the United States apply for financial aid through paper copies.
About the Author: Kaela Carpenter is an intern at Reid Law Firm and a student at Samford University. Kaela may be reached by email at email@example.com.
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