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It’s Tax Time. Protect Yourself!

Paul O’Reilly

Tax season has traditionally been a boon time for identity thieves.  Think about all those social security numbers, bank account details, and other personal information that are left in photo copiers, lost in the mail, or left lying around the hundreds of tax preparation offices that have sprung up over the last few years.

These days, perhaps an even bigger worry than the paper trail we leave behind is the electronic trail that follows us when we go online. Last year, almost 90 million Americans filed their 2007 returns electronically. That was about 58% of the total filings, and this year’s number is expected to be higher still.

As the busiest part of the tax season gets underway, a number of agencies and experts are warning taxpayers to be ultra cautious. “People are lulled into a false sense of security when they file electronically,” says Todd Feinman, chief executive of Identity Finder, an identity-theft-prevention expert. “Hackers may attempt to access your computer at any time. Just because the data is entered on an official looking form or held in a PDF file doesn’t make it any safer.”

How do viruses, trojans and other malware get onto taxpayers computers and networks? Often through innocent-looking downloads performed by their kids.

Teens and even younger children who regularly surf the web are bombarded with free downloads all the time. Video games, puzzles, study aids, file organizers, language programs…the list is endless. A lot of the time these files are passed between friends or other known sources and most children wouldn’t think twice about downloading them to the same computer that holds the family’s financial information and other personal data.

So how do we guard against these viruses and the possibility of electronic theft?  Here are some tips:

  • Consider using a different computer (and network) for your personal information. Keep it separate from the “family” computer that is accessed by everyone.
  • Ensure your security software is up-to-date and firewalls are active when you are connected to the Internet.
  • Regularly check for security updates for your Windows or Mac software.
  • Use password protection for every document that contains personal data.
  • Do not save passwords on your computer, especially those required to access files on the same machine.
  • Educate your children about not downloading files from the Internet or opening e-mail attachments unless they are from a pre-approved source.

Last year, a record 9.9 million Americans fell victim to identity theft. Make sure you don’t join them!

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