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The online tool students use to automatically upload family income data already filed with the government will be up running again by the opening of the 2018-19 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) cycle starting on Oct.1.

Until then, and for what remains of the 2017-2018 aid cycle, families applying for financial aid won’t be able to use it. They’ll have to manually provide the financial office with copies of their tax returns, or go online and fill the application punching all the numbers themselves.

“We are aware of the situation,” PCC financial office director Manuel Cerda said. “We know this can be a hurdle, but so far we haven’t heard much from our students and I don’t think it’s keeping them from applying.”

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data retrieval tool (DRT) that helps students and families to more efficiently apply for financial aid since 2010 was suspended by the IRS on March after a data breach was detected.

As testified in April by IRS Commissioner John Koskinen during a Senate Finance Committee hearing, people at the the tax collection agency knew since last September of a “potential vulnerability” within the tool. They were aware that with little personal information about a student, a hacker could pretend to be one himself or herself, go online, fill a financial aid application, and most importantly give permission to the IRS to populate the application with the adjusted gross income.

Together with the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), the IRS decided back then that without any concrete evidence they would keep monitoring the tool for suspicious activity while keeping the DRT operational without disrupting the 10 thousands of American college students who rely on the tool for getting their financial aid.

But on March 3, a cybersecurity breach was confirmed and the IRS suspended the DRT and told students that the tool would be unavailable until extra security protections would be be added.

According to FSA’s chief operating officer James Runcie’s written testimony during a hearing this month at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the DRT data breach, hackers obtained families’s adjusted gross income from the IRS using the DRT and then filed fraudulent tax returns.

The vulnerability had turned from potential to real.

There have been, according to the Washington Post, about 8,000 fraudulent returns that have been filed, processed and refunds issued from the DRT misuse, totaling $30 million. The suspicious activity involved approximately 100 thousand individuals who have had their taxes payer information compromised.

All those with personal information compromised have been contacted by the Department of Education. Luckily none of the PCC students have identified as affected by the breach so far.

“As soon as we hear anything, we’ll reach out right away,” Cerda said.

Students at PCC have not received any official communication regarding the cyber security incident.

Two students, Ellen Murana and Victoria Villalobos have received in the last few days an email from college regarding their FAFSA application but have no idea the DRT tool has been suspended and for what reason.

“I just got a message two days ago by email saying I have some outstanding requirement regarding my financial aid application but I don’t know why,” Murrana said.

Most likely their problem has nothing to do with the DRT’s suspension, but they are FAFSA applicants and have no idea about the ongoing criminal investigation into the breach.

Cerda said they are notifying students when they come in for help.

“If we would have thought this would have been a significant change for students we would have put the info out there. Also, at the beginning we really didn’t have a time frame, if we knew it was going to be this long maybe we would have put something out there.”

Despite the fact that nationwide roughly half of all FAFSA filers use the DRT to transfer their tax information from the IRS, things go differently at PCC

Last year, out of 20 thousand FAFSA applicants at PCC, only 2,600 retrieved their data using the DRT. Therefore its outage has not affected many people on campus. Furthermore, PCC students started applying in October this year instead of January and those students who did it before the outage in March were able to use the DRT successfully.

The National College Access Network said to the Senate Finance Committee that the tool’s suspension was “an emergency, not a mere inconvenience.” The group said about 10 million FAFSA applications have yet to be filed this year, mostly from lower-income students who tend to file later in the cycle.

Although financial aid advocates are worried that the more time consuming process now needed to get financial aid will slow down the award process and even keep some of  low-income students from applying, PCC administrators are not recording any signs of distress from students relating the the DRT’s outage.

For the year 2017-2018, PCC received 564 successful DRT applications. At this time last year, there were 748.

This means there are 184 PCC students who most likely have been directly affected the DRT’s suspension.

“So far we are not hearing [a] lot of students not applying because [they’re] having trouble with it” Cerda said.

FSA has shared information to help students and their parents to successfully submit their application by providing their tax return information manually while the DRT is unavailable.

Information on how to obtain copies of tax returns are posted on the FSA’s Information for Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP) website, and to FSA’s information portal for students and their parents, along with detailed instructions about completing a FAFSA and an easy-to-follow table showing which line to reference for specific tax information.

“Trying to help with this situation we decided we are going to use the retrieval for last year to satisfy the requirement of taxes for this year,” Cerda said. “If they were able to do it last year they don’t have to do it again this year and don’t need a transcript. We’re being flexible and using last year information. We’re using the same tax year.

Although the 2017-18 aid cycle runs through June 30 of 2018, Cerda does not recommend waiting until the DRT will be restored next October to apply for financial aid.

“Waiting until October is too late,” Cerda said. If students submit required verification documents before the priority deadline of June 30th they are considered for institutional aid (Work Study and SEOG grant) and guaranteed Pell grant disbursement on the first week of the fall term, if eligible.”

On Oct. 1 the DRT will be restored, but will be different. It will be encrypted.

It will still allow tax information to electronically flow from the IRS into FAFSA through the DRT, saving time and ensuring greater accuracy on applicant’s information, but the new tool will encrypt the information and hide it from both the applicant’s and hacker’s view on the IRS DRT web page as well as on the FAFSA.

“We acknowledge some filers may have concerns about not being able to see the information they are transferring from the IRS into the FAFSA,” Runcie said during his testimony. “We will continue to work with the financial aid community and the IRS to address these concerns.”

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