Nearly half a dozen IRS workers at the agency’s Fresno, California facility were charged with computer fraud and unauthorized access to tax return information last Monday: prosecutors accused Corina Yepez, Melissa Moisa, Brenda Jurado, Irene Fierro and David Baker of snooping around taxpayers’ private tax information for personal purposes.
The five may have been caught by new algorithms deployed by the IRS to root out curious tax workers, which can be applied retroactively to access records stretching back for years.
According to the IRS, the five workers accused accessed between one and four records per person, sometime in 2005. The total number of compromised tax returns stands at 13.
“The IRS has a method for looking for unauthorized access, and it keeps audit trails, and occasionally it will pump out information about who's done what,” said prosecutor Mark McKoen, who will be leading the federal case against the Fresno five. “In general terms, IRS employees are only authorized to access the accounts of taxpayers who write in. They're not allowed to access friends, relatives, neighbors, [or] celebrities.”
Apparently, curious employees are a recurring problem for IRS investigators: with 430 known cases of improper access in 1998, and 521 in 2007. Problems occur frequently enough that nosy employees caught browsing are guilty of what the agency calls “UNAX,” or “unauthorized access”: Employees found in UNAX are typically disciplined internally, and a handful are slapped with misdemeanor charges of violating the Taxpayer Browsing Protection and Computer Fraud and Abuse Acts.
“Whether the intent is fraud or simply curiosity, the potential exists for unauthorized accesses to tax information of high-profile individuals and other taxpayers,” said Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George. “The competing goals of protecting this information and achieving workplace efficiencies become even more difficult as technology becomes faster and more complex.”