6 Steps to Staying Safer this Tax Season

Whether you file your taxes online or use a tax program on your computer, cybercrooks are hoping you’ll make a security or safety mistake this tax season. And they are poised to take full advantage of it if you do. Last year online scams cost Americans $559.7 million dollars, according to the FBI’s 2009 Annual Report on Internet Crime, more than double the amount scammed from in 2008.  Following a few basic precautions will significantly increase your safety.
6 Steps to Staying Safer this Tax Season:

  1. Secure your computer - if your computer is infected with malware, criminals will be stealing every piece of information you put on it.  Computer security is vital every day of the year, but especially critical before entering your most sensitive financial information.
    1. You must have anti-virus and anti-spyware software installed and up-to-date. If your computer isn’t protected from Trojans, viruses and other malware your financial information, passwords and identity will be stolen. This concept is so basic, yet only 20% of the US population adequately protects their computers. If the cost of security software is prohibitive, use a free service.
    2. Secure your internet connection – Make sure your computer’s firewall is on. If you use a wireless network it needs to be encrypted so someone who is lurking outside the house can’t collect your information. If you need a free firewall, click here. Never use a public WiFi service for any type of financial transaction or other type of sensitive information transfer.
    3. Use added protection on sensitive financial information with passwords or store on a flash drive, CD or external hard drive For added protection all year, keep your finances inaccessible to anyone who uses (or hacks into) your computer. You can do this by password protecting individual files or folders on your computer, or choose to keep this information on a flash drive or CD that you keep in your safe or other secure location.
  2. Drive, don’t be pulled to tax websites – Chances are, the internet holds the answers to your tax questions. But safely searching for tax forms, advice on deductibles, tax preparers, etc. requires that you don’t get fooled into landing on malicious sites.  Trust is Key. Know the Site. Know the User. Know the Company.
    1. Navigate to the websites yourself by conducting your own search. Always use a tool that helps you see the safety rating of the search results. There are many website safety rating services, and both Firefox and IE offer tools as well.
    2. Or, type in the URL of a trusted site. Just be careful that you don’t mistype the URL, criminals are quick to buy URL’s that are just a common typo away from the legitimate sites, and can make their fake sites appear legit.
    3. Never allow yourself to be pulled to a site by using a link sent in email, or found on someone’s blog, or by clicking on an advertisement. The website you land on may look just like the real site (just as the ad may have looked like a legitimate ad) but it may be a well crafted fake.
  3. Don’t fall for email, web, or social networking scams – tax time brings tax scams. The scams may tout tax rebates, offer great deals on tax preparation, or offer a free tax calculator tool, etc. If you did not solicit the information, it’s a scam.
    1. If the email claims to be from the IRS, it’s a scam – the IRS will not contact you via email.
    2. If the email appears to be from your employer, bank, broker, etc. claiming there is an issue with what they reported for you and you need to verify some information – it’s a scam.
    3. If you feel any temptation whatsoever to believe an online notice, check it out BEFORE responding. Use a site like Snopes and type in the email’s subject to see if the scam has been reported. If it comes from a company, find the company’s contact information yourself and call. Do Not use information contained in the email to check it out, if it’s a scam the information will be part of the scam.
  4. Never send sensitive information in email unless that sensitive information is in a password protected attachment (Word document, Excel file, etc). Basic email is not secure; it can be trapped and read by criminals. There are some email services that encrypt email, you will know if you have one of these.
    1. Do not include the attachment’s password in the email – call and share the password over the phone.
  5. Use strong passwords – A weak password is all it takes for someone to steal your information. “Password” or “123456″ are not secure options, and neither are names, birthdates, words found in dictionaries, etc.. If you use the same password on multiple sites (or everywhere) you are asking for real trouble. Learn how to make strong passwords that aren’t hard to remember, just hard to guess.
  6. Use a reputable tax preparer that follows strict data security guidelines. Even when you’ve secured information on your computer, information can ‘leak’ from whomever you share your information with.
    1. If you are using a new tax preparer, check them out with the Better Business Bureau or get references and check them carefully.
    2. Ask about the data security precautions the tax preparer uses to protect your information – if their computers aren’t secure, your information isn’t either.

Of all the things you need to worry about during tax preparation, don’t make financial safety be one of them. Your actions today can significantly decrease your chances of becoming one of the 300,000 thousand or more victims expected to contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center this year.

Linda

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