Citing Security Fears, IRS Suspends Key Tool in Financial-Aid Process

The U.S. Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service on Thursday announced that the IRS had suspended the agency’s data-retrieval tool, a key online resource that, among other things, makes it easier for students and families to fill out the financial-aid form known as the Fafsa.

This week, reports circulated online that the data-retrieval tool had suddenly become unavailable, without a public explanation from the Education Department or the IRS. After questions swirled about the tool’s status, the agencies said on Thursday that it would be “unavailable for several weeks.”

The outage “does not limit families’ ability to apply for aid,” the agencies said. They added that applicants who were filling out the Fafsa, formally the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or applying for an income-driven plan to repay their student loans could “manually provide the requested financial information from copies of their tax returns.”

Even so, college-access groups and others raised alarms about the glitch. They said it was bumping up against filing deadlines and complicating matters at an important time.

Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Access Network, cited some of those concerns in a post on the group’s website.

“Students who had previously been told to use the DRT [data-retrieval tool] and were relying on it to facilitate their Fafsa completion will now encounter a new wrinkle in the 11th hour that may prevent many from filing on time and gaining access to valuable financial aid,” she wrote. “This concern is especially acute for returning students who used the DRT in past years and may wait until closer to the deadline to file.”

Ms. Warick also voiced concerns about the agencies’ suggestion for people who cannot obtain copies of their tax returns: They encouraged applicants to request a summary of their tax return, known as a tax transcript. But Ms. Warick said that doing so was difficult, and would probably lead to further complications, especially for low-income families.

After acknowledging the outage, the two agencies suggested that the IRS’s data-retrieval tool could be vulnerable to broader problems, and said it had been shut down over security concerns.

“As part of a wider, ongoing effort at the IRS to protect the security of data,” they said, the IRS decided to “temporarily suspend” the data-retrieval tool “as a precautionary step following concerns that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves.”

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