Tax season is almost here – time once again to gather your income statements, W2 forms, and 1099s, and sort out how much you owe Uncle Sam (or hopefully how much he owes you). In our busy world, it is often easier to file online and ensure that the IRS gets your return quickly and doesn’t slap you with any late fees. Sending such personal data over the Internet can be risky business however, if you aren’t aware of the dangers involved. Today we explore 6 ways to ensure safety and security when filing your taxes online.
Use Tax Preparation Software
Perhaps the best way to avoid risk when filing your taxes online is to do so through trusted tax preparation software. Software like TurboTax is critically acclaimed and certified as a secure way to file your return. In fact, TurboTax (and similar applications) use the same encryption technology that banks use, ensuring that your sensitive data is completely protected as it is transmitted to the IRS.
These programs walk you through the process of filing your taxes and assess your finances to find you as many hidden discounts and rebates as you can qualify for. When you are done filling out the return, the software will automatically file it directly with the IRS – no shady websites to go through, no middle men to pass your information to.
File Using the IRS Website
If you prefer to file your return manually rather than use software, only do so through the official IRS submission form. Earlier this year, TechJaws, an Internet security and technology news website, reported that scam artists are known to send out fake IRS emails around tax season aimed at stealing your personal information. These emails typically make up stories about new tax rebates and discounts that can be retrieved if the recipient visits a certain website and files their return there.
Don’t fall for it. If the IRS needed to get in touch with you, they would never use such an unreliable medium as email. These websites are almost always phishing traps set up collect your personal data, disregard your return, and sell it to identity thieves. Furthermore, you should never fill out your return at any other website besides the official IRS.gov site. Regardless of the supposed rebates, security, or other perks offered by third party “tax” sites, it simply isn’t worth the security risk to trust anyone else.
Use a Sandboxed Browser
If you’re the type of person who always has multiple browser tabs open at once, you might encounter a virus or security-compromising spyware infection in one window while you’re filling out your return in another. Normally, if even one of your tabs becomes infected with something unsafe, all of your tabs could be compromised. Your secure connection with the IRS could be broken, and your personal data may be intercepted.
Thankfully, there is a solution to this risk. Sandboxing is a security technology that isolates each tab from the others, preventing dangerous scripts from spreading across the entire browser and onto the hard drive. Armed with a sandbox, a harmful program launched in one tab will be isolated and killed, protecting your tax return and connection with the IRS. Sandboxie offers a free sandbox plug-in for many popular browsers to provide such protection. In addition, ZoneAlarm Extreme Security provides Virtual Browsing allowing users to surf with full protection against malicious software like drive-by downloads and browser exploits.
Use a Secure Connection
Never trust the security of a public Internet hub. Internet cafes, libraries, airports, etc – there is no guarantee of security on these connections, and often times the managers who plugged in the wireless router don’t truly understand safe network practice at all. Such networks could be recording all activity by default, and your sensitive information could be left sitting in the server logs of a public Wi-Fi terminal somewhere, waiting to be discovered.
Public Internet connections present a further security risk – other connected users. You have no way to determine who is on the network at the same time as you, and what their intentions may be. The several other people sitting around you using laptops could be harmlessly browsing, but they could also be listening to the network, waiting to intercept personal data. Don’t chance it – stick to your secure home network when it comes to filing your tax return.
Don’t File From Work
Just as you shouldn’t file your taxes at a public Internet terminal due to security risks, neither should you file them on your workplace’s network. While your office may have tighter security to protect its own financial and private data from leaking to the outside world, that says nothing about the cunning abilities of other coworkers and network administrators who may be listening in. Keep in mind that your social security number – the most sacred of all personal information – is a big part of your tax return. All it takes is one devious office hacker monitoring the connection to see it and jot it down.
As a general rule, you should never transmit personal data over a network that you do not own. Of course, the chance that identity thieves are watching at the precise moment you type your data in to the IRS is slim, but any such chance is not one you should gamble on.
Use Real-Time Security Monitoring
Even using your own network, you can never be too sure that a preexisting virus or spyware application on your hard drive isn’t spying on your return as you fill it out. Sometimes our computers become infected when we are either not aware. Other times we can’t seem to remove the virus and just learn to live with it. These programs might not seem like anything more than minor annoyances, but in reality they may be lying in wait, watching what the user does and waiting for a juicy piece of data to scoop up and send back to its creator.
Using real-time virus monitoring software, you will be alerted the moment a suspicious program attempts to access the Internet. Most monitoring software will literally cut off a program’s access to the internet before it can transmit any data, so if a malicious script notices your filled-out tax return and tries to copy it back to its server, it will be blocked immediately and removed from your hard drive.