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Tax information of more than 100,000 US citizens stolen via “Get Transcript” service of IRS

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Washington: A group of hackers stole confidential data on more than 100,000 US taxpayers over the past four months, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John Koskinen, reported.

At a Tuesday press conference, Koskinen said that the hackers accessed tax returns containing a large amount of personal data via the IRS “Get Transcript” service between February and May.

“Get Transcript” is a way to download several years of tax forms when a taxpayer would like to apply for a mortgage or educational financial aid, for instance.

Of the 200,000 attempts by the cybercriminal group to download individuals’ tax data between February and May, about half were successful, but – although an investigation is under way – US authorities still do not know who could have carried out the hack attack.

The IRS chief said the agency is sure that the hackers were not novices. “We’re dealing with criminals with a lot of money and using expensive equipment and hiring a lot of smart people,” he said.

Koskinen said that the aim of the info-pirates was to use personal data they had already stolen from taxpayers to request fraudulent tax refunds in their names, and about 15,000 such refunds were issued.

The IRS will send letters to the 200,000 people potentially affected by the data theft starting this week to inform them of the problem.

According to the agency, the hackers already had acquired – possibly through the social networks – private information, including names, addresses, social security numbers and certain other personal details, on citizens whose tax data they then attempted to steal.

The IRS has temporarily disabled the “Get Transcript” service. Over the past few months, Americans used it to download 23 million transcripts, the agency said, but – for the moment – those requests will have to be filled by sending out paper copies of past tax returns.

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US Sanctions on Cuba Deterring American Firms from Exploring Its Telecommunications Sector

It remains unclear how open it would be to U.S. investment in the strategic telecoms sector

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US, Cuba, American Firms
FILE - Cubans check their phones at an internet hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 10, 2018. VOA

U.S. sanctions on Cuba are deterring American firms from exploring its telecommunications sector even as Washington seeks to expand internet access on the Communist-run island, according to the final report of a U.S. government task force released on Tuesday.

Chinese companies dominate Cuba’s telecoms sector, a status quo “worth challenging given concerns that the Cuban government potentially obtains its censorship equipment from Chinese Internet infrastructure providers,” the report said.

Cuba’s government protested the U.S. State Department’s creation of a Cuba Internet Task Force last year as “foreign interference.” It remains unclear how open it would be to U.S. investment in the strategic telecoms sector.

“U.S. companies informed the subcommittees they are often deterred from entering the market due to uncertainty caused by frequent changes to U.S. regulations concerning Cuba,” according to the task force, convened last year by the State Department.

US, Cuba, American Firms
U.S. sanctions on Cuba are deterring American firms from exploring its telecommunications sector. Pixabay

U.S. presidents have successively tightened and loosened the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba imposed in the years after its 1959 revolution.

Former President Barack Obama created a loophole for U.S. telecommunications companies to provide certain services to Cuba. His successor, Donald Trump, maintained the loophole but tightened the broader sanctions, worsening the overall business climate.

Banks are increasingly reluctant to process payments originating in Cuba. Some telecoms firms surveyed by the task force said that was putting them off offering key services and products in the country.

The task force advised the U.S. government to clear up the regulatory uncertainty and seek feedback on how to improve telecoms firms’ ability to invest.

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Until 2013, the internet was largely available to the public in Cuba only at tourist hotels amid the U.S. embargo, lack of cash and concerns over the free flow of information.

The government has increased web access in recent years, installing a fiber-optic cable to Venezuela and introducing cyber cafes, Wi-Fi hot spots and mobile internet.

Cuban telecoms monopoly ETECSA signed a deal earlier this year with Alphabet’s Google on increasing connectivity, but the two have not publicly agreed on any significant investments. (VOA)