By Ondrej Krehel
No single document contains more personal information than your tax return. Name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, employer information, banking accounts, routing numbers, credit card payment data—the list could go on. So it’s imperative that your tax documents are secure.
The days of filling out a paper tax form in black ink, with a calculator on the table, are over. Most of us file online, use a computer tax preparation program such as TurboTax or TaxCut or simply hire an accountant to do it. Whichever way you choose, here are some quick tips to boost your tax security.
When using an online tax service, make sure the address in your Web browser starts with an “https” rather than the standard “http.” The “s” signifies you’re on a secure connection. You should also see a little yellow padlock logo to the right of the web browser address bar.
Also confirm that it’s the actual company URL address in your web browser. Hackers are very smart at making fake URLs look real, like, for instance IDT91.com for IDT911.com. The text of the URL itself is often misspelled—a sure sign of a fake website designed to harvest your personal information.
Create “strong” passwords for online tax vendors that have numbers, upper- and lower-case letters and symbols. For example, “3Dogz$$!” is better than “1006.” Don’t use the same password as your email or online banking accounts; make it unique. If the tax site is jeopardized, the hacker won’t have access to all your sites.
And generally, be aware of phishing email scams. The IRS will never send you an email. For more information see the IRS’s official vendor list here.
If your tax software has an online component, as many of them do, the above tips apply. But beyond those, drafting tax forms on your Mac or PC presents a special set of challenges. Your computer is susceptible to malware, viruses or a hacker intrusion, so always make sure it is up to date with the latest program versions and update patches. Most programs have an auto-updater. Run it every time you open the program. And make sure you’ve got the latest anti-malware and anti-virus software installed.
Also, don’t delete the software installation files—save them. You may have to make adjustments to your return or refer back to the program itself. Access to the original program, rather than just its data files, will be a big help in the event of a tax complication or audit or if you find yourself the victim of tax-related identity theft.
Still, you must secure the program and its files. Store all your files and completed tax records on encrypted media, whether an external hard drive or a specific, designated encrypted flash drive. Beyond the tax software files, also save copies of your completed return as PDF files. This will make the information easier to reference if you ever need to go back to it. Also consider printing paper copies and storing them in a secure place such as a safe or your safe-deposit box. Then, in the event of a total computer meltdown, you’ll still have hard records and backup.
If you use an accountant to handle your taxes, the biggest thing you can do is ask questions:
Don’t be afraid to be a little pushy. A professional accountant will understand the sensitivity and oblige. If they don’t, consider it a sign and move on.
For more information, see the special March 2011 tax-fraud education package .
Ondrej has more than a decade of network and computer security experience. His expertise extends to investigations of intellectual property theft, massive deletions, defragmentation, anti-money laundering and computer hacking. He led U.S. computer security projects at Stroz Friedberg and worked in IT security at Loews Corp.