Scams seeking sensitive personal information seem to be constant in our country. Emails from supposed Nigerian princes, phone calls on behalf of loved ones allegedly in jail and needing bail money, and other outlandish attempts to separate us from our money have become just another part of daily life. But subtler scams are commonplace as well, as evidenced by a recent Sixth Circuit case.
In Smith v Tipton Co Bd of Ed, a school employee received an email, allegedly from the school district’s Superintendent, Dr. William Bibb. The email provided that the employee must respond with all 2016 employee W-2s and tax information, which included names, addresses, social security numbers, and other sensitive information. The employee complied, and only thereafter discovered that the person she emailed was not, in fact, Dr. Bibb. After word was sent to employees regarding the inadvertent disclosure of information, a district bus driver initiated a class action lawsuit against the school district.
The lawsuit provided that the school district was liable for damages because it administered a SNAP benefit, and federal law allows damages where a local agency administering certain programs (including SNAP benefits) discloses tax return information. Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed because the school district did not provide any SNAP benefits. In fact, the only link between the district and SNAP benefits was that students who received SNAP benefits were automatically eligible to receive free or low‑cost lunches at the school as part of the National School Lunch Program. The Sixth Circuit determined that automatic eligibility was not enough to conclude that the school district “administered” a SNAP benefit.
While the lawsuit was not successful, the disclosure of information and subsequent legal action negatively impacted the school district, which was forced to weather negative PR and field a legal defense. The entire situation could have been avoided if the employee had simply contacted the Superintendent before responding to the scam email. The case serves as a good reminder to remain skeptical of any email, phone call, or other communication that seeks sensitive information. Remaining calm and thoughtful in such scenarios may just save you, or your employer, from making a serious error