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Mace & Crown | April 30, 2017

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Beware: FAFSA Hacked

Audra Reigle | Assistant Technology Editor

If you’re receiving financial aid of some sort, you’re probably aware of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Each year, students are asked to fill it out in order to receive financial aid for the next academic year. This year you might need to be extra careful and secure because a breach in the system was discovered in which hackers could access personal data.

Up to 15 million people use the FAFSA’s Data Retrieval Tool to fill out tax information on the form, according to CNN. That tool was hacked, allowing hackers to take personal information and file false tax returns. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen made the Senate Finance Committee aware of the breach last fall, but the tool was not taken down until March.

“The IRS flagged 100,000 accounts of people who started the application, used the Data Retrieval Tool, but didn’t finish,” according to CNN. Those that have been affected have been alerted in case their information was compromised by the hackers, but it is possible that some of those applications were authentic.

“The IRS is developing software to prevent further theft of personal tax data, but it won’t be implemented until October,” according to CNN. Though the Data Retrieval Tool is offline, students and parents can still fill out the FAFSA form online, but tax information has to be entered manually. The FAFSA website has provided information to help those filling out their tax information manually.

The Data Retrieval Tool’s removal from the website has slowed the application process for those applying for financial aid, according to Inside Higher Ed. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison tried “to track the effects of the tool’s closure with recent data from the Office of Federal Student Aid.” However, tracking it is difficult because the 2017-2018 FAFSA opened on Oct. 1, three months earlier than previous years, and uses “income data from two years prior.”

“Financial aid professionals who work directly with students said the data tool’s outage already is hurting students’ ability to obtain aid,” according to Inside Higher Ed. If a student’s application is selected for verification, they could miss out on state and institutional aid while their application is being verified. That state and institutional aid can make or break a student’s decision on what school to attend.

The Data Retrieval Tool’s removal seems to be causing more headaches for students applying for financial aid than anything else. With the revised tool coming later this year, those applying for aid again later this year can hope that there are no further issues with the FAFSA.