Top 20 Cybersecurity Tips During Tax Time
Yeah! Tax season! And 240 million Americans are gathering together their sensitive documents with their personal information so that they can file. Good times. Man, I love April.
So, the other day, I ran into an article entitled Turbotax turning off the ability to e-file state returns due to an increase in suspicious filings. Great and all but, soon thereafter, they ended up restoring the ability to file online. Eek! Get your num-chucks out and I’ll tell you why: If you’re filing online, you’re actually creating a window of opportunity for hackers to steal your personal information, e.g., your name, date of birth, SSN, etc. Then, with that information, they’re able to file a phony tax return in your name in order to claim your refund. The refund is then sent to the fraudster, leaving you wondering why your check was never delivered to your mailbox.
Rude, right? I’d say so. Anyway, it’s an issue that looms large and impacts millions of people each year. It also costs the government billions of dollars in tax refunds that should have never been paid.
Why should we be concerned? Because I like getting my refund check. Almost as much as rainbows, peanut butter, and, let’s say puppies. We move on, though. When a thief obtains information with your tax refund, they can also perform activities such as obtain a job, open up a new line of credit, access existing financial accounts, get into stock portfolios, obtain welfare, avoid a criminal history…the list goes on.
All that described, because it is so easy for a hacker to take control of your personal computer and con you out of your hard-earned money, the IRS works hard every year to issue warnings about these attempts at identity theft. In fact, we recommend taking a peek at the IRS pages on suspicious emails and identify theft, tax scams consumer alerts, and phishing schemes.
Email seems to be the preferred choice for IRS scams and they usually fall under the following categories:
- The email will falsely claim that it’s coming from the IRS and ask you to click on a link. From there, it accesses your refund and, BOOM! They have access to your personal identifying information.
- The email will state that your tax return will be audited and will address you by name.
- The email will have an embedded link that, when clicked, will download Malware which is malicious software that takes over a victim’s computer. When this happens, the hard drive is accessed giving the hacker the ability to remote into the computer. Then the crook can access your records, passwords, and other personal information. The email will claim that it pertains to an IRS survey and purports that it will pay you, the taxpayer, money for completing the survey.
Here at Homecybersifu, we would love to some precautionary measure that you can take during this tax period:
- If you receive any e-mails claiming to be from the IRS, simply don’t open those suckers. Remember, the IRS never initiates emails to taxpayers. Most likely, the first time you’ll ever hear from the IRS will be through some good old-fashioned snail-mail. And be wary of all embedded links as they’re most likely phishing scams. If you do receive one of these email the IRS has an email listed on their website on their IRS Report phishing Page, which you may forward the emails to. Once they receive the fake emails, they’ll then go to work to track the source and shut it down.
- If you need information from the IRS, the only genuine IRS website is www.irs.gov. To get there, always enter the url directly into your browser bar as any email using an embedded link can easily redirect you to a fake site. Also, safely searching for tax forms, advice on deductibles, tax preparers, and other similar topics requires caution. If you do not know the site or know the company, just don’t go to that site. Simple, right? And trusting a ling on a blog or an advertisement is never a bueno idea.
- If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, hang that receiver up! Most of these calls are targeted at seniors. What typically happens with them is the hacker will identify themselves as an IRS employee, telling them that he or she is eligible for a big rebate if they file early. The catch is that, to provide this rebate, the taxpayer is required to offer up their banking information. Another phone scam involves the “IRS employee” indicating that the IRS needs to send the victim’s refund check (which hasn’t been cashed yet), and that the IRS needs to verify the victims account number.
- Secure your home network and computer. Please! If you file your tax return online, definitely make sure your computer has the latest security updates installed. This includes checking both your anti-virus and anti-spyware software to make sure they’re up and running properly and receiving automatic updates from their vendor. If you haven’t already done this, simply install a firewall, enable it, and then make sure your device has encryption software. We highly recommend using an anti-malware software product to scan for and eliminate any keylogger or security loopholes on the computer that you’ll be using to prepare your taxes. Also, this computer should never be used by children or others who might either intentionally or unitentionally install peer-to-peer software which exposes the computer to unrestricted web browsing.
- Be wise about Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi hotspots are intended to provide convenient access to the Internet. However, they are not necessarily secure against eavesdropping by hackers. So, never send any type of personal information over public Wi-Fi, such as the kind you would find in a coffee shop, restaurant, or hotel lobby (to name a few). These public hot spots are favorite handouts for ID thieves. If you file online, it is best to do it at home on your secured network.
- Use strong passwords. Add security codes so that only you can access your computer, laptop, phone, or any other electronic devices you may have. Feel free to check out our blog post on Password Security. Cyber criminals have developed programs that automate the ability to guess your passwords. To protect yourself, passwords must be difficult for others to guess. At the same time, they should also be easy enough for you to remember. Adding security codes to your tax software files is important so that a password is required each time you access your data when logging into your tax software.
- Lock your laptop and mobile device. Ensure that your laptop and mobile devices are physically secured, especially if you are using a personal tax preparation software or maintaining tax information on it. While losing a laptop or a smartphone can be a nuisance, losing them and having your identity stolen as well, is definitely worse.
- Update your software. Make sure to use the latest versions of any tax software, such as Intuit’s TurboTax or H&R Block’s TaxCut. But also be sure to check that you have installed the latest versions of Web browser software, especially if you plan to use an online income tax preparation site. It’s also a great call to update utility software (like Adobe Flash or another type ofdigital media players), which are frequently called on to display information on websites such as IRS.gov. The reason why we suggest this is that these pieces of utility software can easily be exploited by hackers to gain unauthorized access to your PC and sensitive personal tax info, such as your Social Security number.
- Protect your Social Security Number/Card. I have known a few people who carry it in their wallet. It’s really is vital as far as documents go, so I actually keep mine in a safety deposit box. Last thing, there are legitimate sites that will ask for your Social, however, still be weary when setting up accounts.
- Protect your Personal Identifiable Info in transit. In other words, never send sensitive information by email, as it may be intercepted. Financial documents don’t belong left unattended, for example, in a briefcase in your car. Law enforcement has reported increases in vehicle break-ins to steal items that can be used to commit identity theft. So, when transferring your precious tax documents between your home and your accountant, make sure to hide them from view, e.g., locked in the trunk, at all times.
- Beware of dumpster divers. Shred all important documents. Scammers will often rummage through people’s garbage cans in search of personal information, such as bank statements and SSNs. To ensure that your information is properly protected, just shred those guys before tossing them.
- Secure all tax documentation, both physically and digitally. Whether in the home or in the office, make sure all tax documents and paperwork are secured in a safe and locked location at all times. Any financial statement or item with personal identifying information should not be left unsecured or visible to others. Ensure that your personal information stored in digital format is properly encrypted, both while in transit, and also while at rest on your computer.
- Securely mail your return. If you are sending your return through the U.S. postal service, we recommend dropping it off yourself. Instead of placing throwing up the red flag on your own personal mailbox for the carrier to pick up, take them directly to the Post Office and drop them into a box inside. Easy-peasy. If you absolutely must use an outside Post Office pickup box, it’s best to drop your mail right before the last pick-up of the day. Oh, and never leave tax documents in an outgoing mailbox at work.
- Have a backup ready. An external hard drive or a USB memory stick is a handy place to store your sensitive tax data as you work on your return. Keeping it in a safe place when you’re not working on your electronic return minimizes the chance of it being stolen by online hackers or lost in a hard drive crash. Also, make sure the USB stick has required encryption software in case it gets lost or stolen.
- Make sure the web site you’re using utilizes secure technology. If you’re filing your taxes on the Web, make sure that the address begins with https (for example, https://www.homecybersifu.com/), and check to see if a tiny locked padlock appears at the bottom right of the screen.
- Know your tax preparer. For some, preparing to file can be as painful as going to the dentist for a root canal. Therefore, they opt to hire someone else to prepare their taxes for them. That described, just walking into an office off the street is not a good idea; some tax preparation services are not trustworthy. So be sure to check that a professional has the proper safeguards in place to ensure that information is secure. Oh, and never be afraid to ask for past client referrals! An even better approach is to ask someone you know for a reference. A good piece of information we’d like to impart that some online tax preparation websites are set up by criminals so, again, be careful. In fact, some mom and pop tax preparation companies may not be in business next year because of this. I mean, can we really trust someone who has all of your personal information without really researching them? Probably not.
- Be selective about who works on your taxes. Investigate tax preparation companies with the Better Business Bureau, especially new or seasonal offices. Ask the preparer how your information will be stored. Will it be encrypted? What computer security software is used? Who has access to this information? Has the person working on your taxes undergone a thorough background screening? How many years have they worked for the company? Do you see personal papers displayed on desks? Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable or doubt the firm’s commitment to protecting your privacy, take your business elsewhere. Be wary of online tax preparers, especially if you don’t know who they are and don’t know whether the company is legitimate and employs certified tax personnel. They can be a website set up by hackers to gather your SSN and other account information.
- E-Filing. While preparing your tax return for filing, make sure to use a strong password to protect the data file. Once your return has been e-filed, burn the file to a CD or flash drive and remove your personal information from the hard drive. Store the CD or flash drive in a lock box or safe. If working with an accountant, you should query them on what measures they take to protect your information.
- File early if possible. File your return as early as possible to prevent someone from filing a tax return under your name.
- Avoid all that sounds unrealistic. As the old saying goes, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So just watch out for companies that promise to file your taxes for free and Web sites claiming that you don’t have to pay income tax because they know the loopholes.
For more articles on Cybersecurity Tips during tax Time, visit our Pinterest Board by clicking here.