February 26, 2007 - MARKEY URGES FEDERAL REVIEW OF FAKE IRS WEBSITES

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Today, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications & the Internet and Co-chair of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, sent a letter to Department of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Trade Commission Chair Deborah Majoras and IRS Commissioner Mark Everson to ask what is being done to address the potential for deception associated with several web sites that use domain names that may lead the public to believe the website is an official websites of the Internal Revenue Service. Rep. Markey urged the agencies to protect the public from being misled into offering personally sensitive and tax return information to the sites’ operators.

“I am concerned these sites may be confusing to consumers, who may believe them to be an official Internal Revenue Service Website.  Since the taxpayers who provide personal information to these sites may do so under the misimpression that they were dealing with an official government website subject to applicable federal privacy protections, there is a serious potential for consumer confusion, deception, and abuse,” Rep. Markey said.

A consumer survey and study presented to the IRS and FTC in early January of this year by the Computer and Communications Industry Association suggests that a significant proportion of Web-savvy consumers misunderstand and misinterpret these three non-governmental Websites as being sites hosted by the IRS.   The survey showed, for example, that before viewing the website IRS.com, 47% of those surveyed believed the site represented the Internet address of the Internal Revenue Service. Even after viewing the site, 24% still believed the IRS.com website was an official government website.

Rep. Markey concluded, “I am concerned that consumers who visit these sites may provide the operators with personally identifiable information and tax return information, enabling the operators to either market or sell this information to others, or to sell and market all manner of products and services to these taxpayers.”

The original correspondence bringing this matter to light and Markey letter can be found here in PDF form:
Attachment 1-- CCIA letter to IRS1.pdf

Markey Letter re IRScom-Final1.pdf 

A copy of Rep. Markey’s letter follows below:

The Honorable Henry Paulson           
Secretary         
Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW             
Washington, DC  20220                      

The Honorable Deborah Majoras
Chair
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20580

The Honorable Mark Everson
Commissioner
Internal Revenue Service
1111 Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.  20224

Dear Secretary Paulson, Commissioner Everson and Chairman Majoras:

I am writing to you regarding a number of non-governmental websites which appear to be masquerading as official sites of the United States Government, and specifically, the Internal Revenue Service.  

I am aware of three websites operating under the names which may be trying to pass themselves off as official IRS websites:  IRS.com, IRS.net and IRS.org..  I am concerned these sites may be confusing to consumers, who may believe them to be an official Internal Revenue Service Website.   I am concerned that consumers who visit these sites may provide the operators with personally identifiable information and tax return information, enabling the operators to either market or sell this information to others, or to sell and market all manner of products and services to these taxpayers.  Since the taxpayers who provide personal information to these sites may do so under the misimpression that they were dealing with an official government website subject to applicable federal privacy protections, there is a serious potential for consumer confusion, deception, and abuse.  

I have attached for your review correspondence which brought this matter to the notice of the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Trade Commission early this year, as the annual tax season got underway, a copy of which I recently received (see attachment 1).  I am interested in knowing what action, if any, is being taking by your agencies in response to this information.  What is clear, however, is that these websites appear to be continuing their operation undisturbed.  

A consumer survey and study presented to the IRS and FTC in early January of this year by the Computer and Communications Industry Association (see attachment 2) suggests that a significant proportion of Web-savvy consumers misunderstand and misinterpret these three non-governmental Websites as being sites hosted by the IRS.   The survey showed, for example, that before viewing the website IRS.com, 47% of those surveyed believed the site represented the Internet address of the Internal Revenue Service.  Even after viewing the site, 1/3rd of those surveyed still believed the site was the IRS website. A broader survey of the general public, including the substantial proportion of citizens who are not Web-savvy, would undoubtedly demonstrate an even more serious problem.

I am not convinced that the fine-print disclaimers at the bottom of these sites stating that that they are non-governmental provide any meaningful protection to consumers.  As the aforementioned survey indicates, such disclaimers do not appear to be effective nor demonstrative of good intent to differentiate these websites from the official site of the Internal Revenue Service.  Many other aspects of the sites would lead people to believe the opposite of the disclaimer.  Moreover, on some of these sites, the fine-print disclaimer itself is at the very bottom of the sites and would not be seen by the consumer unless they scrolled down to bring it into view – which many consumers may not do.

I therefore request that you report on what action, if any, is being taken by your agencies, using your agencies respective authorities under the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Lanham Act, to protect the public from any unfair or deceptive trade practices associated with these websites, and to ensure that the public does not continue to be exposed to these potentially misleading or confusing websites.  There is no relationship between a citizen and our government more sensitive, nor information more private, than that involving individual taxes and the annual voluntary compliance obligation.  The federal government has a duty to protect taxpayers from predatory behaviors as they seek to meet their obligation to pay taxes.   

Please describe any actions you are taking to intervene and put an immediate stop to this threat to the public interest, now, in the current tax season, before any other taxpayers are victimized.

Sincerely,

 

Edward J. Markey
Chairman
Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet

For more information on Rep. Markey’s consumer issues, please visit http://markey.house.gov

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 26, 2007

CONTACT: Vikrum Aiyer
David Moulton
202.225.2836