The unusual suspension of a tool widely used to complete the FAFSA may have been the result of a Louisiana private investigator's unlawful attempt to obtain President Trump's tax records, reports suggest.
The data-retrieval tool is a feature within the FAFSA forms that allows students to directly import tax information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The Department of Education suspended the tool in March, citing security concerns. There were some concerns that the tool's suspension would make financial aid paperwork more time-consuming for colleges to process due to the burden of having to find or request old tax documents, but the Department of Education slightly eased that burden after announcing they would be more flexible.
However, filling out the FAFSA without the IRS tool is still a confusing and time-consuming process for students.
"The [tool] outage harms students and families in multiple ways, making the FAFSA more difficult to complete, making more students subject to verification, and leaving families with fewer available financial aid office resources for help navigating the financial aid process," says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).
Federal officials have been somewhat vague about what caused the suspension in the first place. Now, court records obtained by Diverse Issues in Higher Education may reveal the answer.
The records show that, in September 2016, a 31-year old private investigator in Louisiana named Jordan Hamlett was accused of entering a social security number into FAFSA that did not belong to him, which is a felony. The last four digits of the social security number are the same as those identified by an online "hacktivist" organization as belonging to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Providing a false social security number would have allowed Hamlett to give permission for the IRS to populate the FAFSA form with the tax information with which it corresponded.
That same month, John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, announced to Congress that he had security concerns about the data-retrieval tool.
In October 2016, Hamlett discussed his attempt during an interview with the FBI. In November, he was arrested but released on the condition that he be monitored by law enforcement and not use internet capable devices (Abdul-Alim, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 5/21; Brown/Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 5/22).
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