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Former college student pleads guilty to trying to hack Trump's taxes

Donald Trump signing tax form February 2016 via Twitter
This February 2016 photo on Twitter of Donald J. Trump signing a tax return is one of the few, and unrevealing, looks we've gotten of his federal filings.

The focus of Donald J. Trump and his White House change quickly. Issues that were boiling over just days ago quickly get pushed to a back burner by something else that's hotter.

But some of those old topics are still simmering. And one of them, Trump's tax returns, saw the heat turned up a bit recently.

It was, however, a former college student, not Trump, who was put on the hot spot.

Justin Hiemstra on Aug. 6 pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of trying to illegally obtain Trump' tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service. There was no announcement of the terms of the plea deal.

Officially, the guilty plea is in connection with 18 U.S. Code § 1030, fraud and related activity in connection with computers.

Although not specifically tax related, computer hacking that leads to tax identity theft and fraud is a continuing concern for taxpayers. That's why that portion of federal law earns this week's By the Numbers honor.

Tempted by Trump's tax silence: Trump's taxes have been a subject of intense speculation ever since he refused to release them during the 2016 presidential campaign.

It was the first time in more than 40 years that a major candidate for commander in chief did not release at least some tax filings.

Trump also has not made public the tax returns he's filed since moving into the White House.

Federal investigators say that back in 2016, the mystery of Trump's taxes was too tempting for Hiemstra, 22, from St. Paul Park, Minnesota, and a friend.

Both young men, at the time students at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, allegedly concocted a scheme that they hoped would let them hack the IRS and steal Trumps' tax information.

If successful, they reportedly discussed publicly releasing the 1040s.

Foot in FAFSA e-door: On Nov. 2, 2016, six days before the election, Hiemstra and his college pal, armed with computer login credentials from two other students, initiated their scheme at the school's computer lab.

They apparently believed that their familiarity with the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) online process was the key. The IRS provides online assistance to help students and their families complete the financial aid paperwork.

Hiemstra opened a false FAFSA application in the name of a member of the Trump family, according to court filings.

Court filings do not expressly state which Trump family member was in the federal student aid system. However, they do note that Hiemstra and his fellow student found that someone else had already obtained a username and password for Donald Trump.

In trying to reset the password, Hiemstra was prompted to answer the challenge questions created by the person who established the original account. He was successful in this step and reset the password, apparently by Googling Trump and his family.

Hiemstra then used the Trump's personal information, including his Social Security number and date of birth, to attempt to import the then-candidate's federal tax information into the bogus FAFSA application.

And no, I don't know if Google also was the source of Trump's Social Security number. Federal investigators did not elaborate on how the college students got that critical personal and tax identifier.

IRS roadblocks hold: Then the pair hit some higher identity theft hurdles.

Their hack attempt failed when they were unable to supply the tax-specific info required to complete their electronic impersonation attempt.

Specifically, they needed the filing status and home address on Trump's tax records to gain access to his tax records. Despite several attempts to answer correctly, they ultimately failed.

The IRS and the Department of Education were monitoring the activity. Their anti-hacking efforts revealed the internet protocol (IP) logs linking back to Haverford. From there, law enforcement tracked Hiemstra and his colleague.

The other student allegedly in on the hacking attempt also was reportedly charged. News reports say he, too, is expected to finalize a plea deal on failed Trump taxes hack.

However, the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has not released any official information on the other young man.

Differing hacking perspectives: Some have characterized the Hiemstra's hacking attempt as primarily a youthful challenge to beat the system(s).

Federal law enforcement thinks otherwise.

"No matter what you think about the President's tax returns, clearly this kind of illegal activity cannot be tolerated or condoned," said U.S. Attorney McSwain in a statement announcing Hiemstra's plea.

"Unauthorized or false attempts to obtain any citizen's IRS filings are a serious violation of privacy rights and a federal crime, and there's nothing funny about it," added the federal prosecutor. "Now this defendant is being held accountable for his actions, as he should be."

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