Tips to stay secure during tax season

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year—tax season. Cybercriminals are positively drooling at the prospect of all that personal data out there on the Internet for the taking.

So what’s the worst that can happen? In a couple words: identity theft. Nearly 250,000 new reports of identity theft were filed in 2016 with the IRS. It can take upwards of 600 hours to restore a stolen identity, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

The IRS has launched new safeguards in order to verify identity and the validity of returns, especially for those who prepare their own federal and state taxes using software programs. In addition, if you take your own proper precautions, you can shore up your online safety.

For online security

This is important for anyone transmitting sensitive data online, whether that’s shopping or filing taxes: be sure to use a connection that’s secure. If on a home computer and network, use password-protected Wi-Fi and look for secured browsers (website URLs that start with “https” and display a small lock icon). Be sure your preparer has the same security in place. Never, ever, ever file your taxes using public Wi-Fi.

Ever.

In addition, when filing taxes online (and again, this applies to any online service that requires a password), choose passwords that are long and complex. Avoid plain text passwords, use special characters, and if allowed, use spaces.

The third pillar of Internet security (especially during tax season) is to be aware of social engineering scams, including phishing emails. A popular phishing technique is to send an email from the “IRS” that says, essentially, “We have your tax return ready and you can get your money faster if you just download this PDF!” Nope. Number one, you should never open an attachment from an email you aren’t expecting to receive. Number two, the IRS will not email you. They’ll physically mail you information, but even then, be wary. Tax scams can happen via postal mail, too.

In addition to phishing attacks, there are reports of cold callers who say, essentially, “Hey, we’re from the IRS and you owe us $10,000.” Nope. The IRS won’t call you either. If you receive an email or phone call that’s unsolicited and is looking for personal information, don’t give it. Go back and independently verify who is trying to reach you.

After mastering the basics of online security best practices, it’s a good idea to protect your self using a little technology. Before you even start typing in your social security number, you should run at least one kind of cyber security software. I recommend Malwarebyes.com. That way you’re sure there’s no malware on your system, such as a keylogger or spyware that can record your information without you knowing. You should also make sure your operating system, browser, and other software programs are updated—that way, you protect against malware that might exploit vulnerabilities in your computer.

Finally, if you believe there’s a chance you could have been compromised, look into a credit monitoring or ID theft service. By law, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from the three major bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union. Review your reports annually and look for any suspicious activity.

Filing early, being prepared, staying vigilant online, and employing the proper security technology—if you follow these tips then you can not only keep cybercriminals from cashing in on your tax returns but also from taxing your peace of mind.