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Over-the-Web Tax Returns – Are they Secure?

(ARA) – Most Americans view their tax return as a document that represents all things financial to them — containing both personal and financial information for all household members. As the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) attempts to motivate Americans to electronically file their tax returns, the future can seem a little scary for the millions of taxpayers who have continued to prepare their tax returns manually. Of those taxpayers who have decided to take the plunge and use Web-based tax preparation software this year, many wonder, ‘How secure are my tax records?’

There are several things you should know to help keep your information safe as it relates to using a computer to prepare and e-file a tax return.

  1. Update your computer’s virus protection software — install patches for its operating system and software programs to defend against intruders, viruses and spyware that can compromise files and passwords. While doing this, you may even want to consider scheduling automatic virus scan updates.
  2. Only store financial information on your computer that is necessary; and, protect access to your programs by using something called a ‘strong’ password — a combination of letters and numbers (upper and lower case) to ward off possible identity thieves. A good way to create a strong password is to come up with a memorable phrase. For example, ‘I ward off danger, by practicing safety first, becomes 1W0DBPSf.
  3. Never use an automatic login feature to populate user name and password fields — features such as these help thieves gain access to your personal information.
  4. Use a firewall program if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1 that leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. Without it, hackers can take over your computer, access the personal information stored on it, or use it for other fraudulent purposes.
  5. Never open files, click on hyperlinks or download programs from people or companies you don’t know. Also, be aware that some popular file-sharing programs can make your computer vulnerable — enabling others the ability to capture passwords and other information you type from your keyboard.
  6. Prior to sharing information or making a purchase, look for indicators that the site is secure. For example, at the bottom of the data entry screen, check to make sure a lock icon appears on the browser’s status bar (usually located at the lower right-hand portion of your screen) or the URL for a Web site is displayed as ‘https:’ (the ‘s’ stands for secure).
  7. Always type the URL of the Web site you want to visit into your browser — don’t click on links that are sent to you. Another precaution is to click a site’s VeriSign Seal. By following these two guidelines, you can be confident you are trafficking an authentic site — not the work of some imposter trying to deceive you into divulging your confidential passwords or other information.

Stephanie Behrends, spokesperson for 2nd Story Software, Inc., makers of the popular TaxACT tax preparation software and Web-based services advises, ‘Before you share any information or make a purchase online, take time to read that company’s privacy and safeguard policies. A Web site should answer questions regarding: security, how information collected will be used and maintained, if information will be shared with third parties, as well as who controls and has access to information collected by the site. If you find a site’s policies to be confusing or it fails to specify information upfront, follow-up is necessary or consider doing business online elsewhere.’

The IRS warns taxpayers to be on the lookout for fraudsters who use the agency’s name to further their schemes. If you receive an e-mail that appears to have been sent by the IRS, think again. The IRS does not ask people for PIN numbers, passwords or similar secret access information for their credit card, bank or other financial accounts — by phone or e-mail. The bottom line: The IRS does not solicit this information — don’t share it!

So, what should you do if you suspect your identity has been stolen? Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/) for detailed instructions about how to handle the aftermath of identity theft.

Courtesy of ARA Content