The Tax Man Cometh: A Gentle Reminder About Security
I have to say that I find it aggravating that my favorite time of the year (spring and March Madness) is also my least favorite: tax season. Now, I will admit that it’s not as bad as it used to be because I pay someone else to prepare my taxes (a great company that I’ve used for about 10 years now) but the simple act of getting together all the forms and then filling out the pertinent information on my tax worksheets is the singular (professional and personal) most hated task of my year. I’m not kidding—worse than any dentist or doctor’s appointment, worse than any looming book deadline (I have to plug our Ebook!), worse than a visceral reaction to any article or blog post that I’ve ever read (and I have been known to go ballistic over some of them).
As I worked through my tax preparing angst this year, I was reminded of something that is second nature to me but may not be second nature to you. (If it’s not, it’s probably because you are not a card-carrying member of the big data and analytics industry or work for a company like PatternBuilders where we spend a great deal of time exploring data privacy and security issues.) Let me explain. We had just completed our contracts for our Ebook on privacy in the age of big data when our publisher, O’Reilly, sent me some tax forms electronically to fill out and return. I promptly emailed their contract administrator and told her my form would be coming via snail mail (remember the postal service?). Why? Well my social security number was one of the required pieces of information and I do not send that number electronically. Ever.
Paranoid? Maybe, but I have been well-trained. You see, my tax preparer has been e-filing my returns for a couple of years now in preparation for this year’s mandate that requires all preparers to e-file. When they started this process a couple of years ago, they informed their clients of the following:
- The filing process with the IRS is safe and secure, should any of us be worried about security breaches and possible identify fraud, and that they met or exceeded the government’s tax data security guidelines. (By the way, identify theft is one of the three most common complaints made to the joint FBI/National White Collar Crime Center’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.)
- The safe and secure validation could not be made for any of their clients’ systems so the information they sent us electronically would be encrypted, password protected, and specific personal identifiers, such as our social security numbers, would be redacted in our electronic copies.
- Finally, they reminded their clients that social security numbers are the key to identity theft and unless dealing with a secure and safe site and operating from a secure network (see my post on data, security, and your mobile phone), should never be given out electronically.
I wouldn’t call my behavior paranoid, but rather a careful consideration of what is safe and what is not. After all, your SSN number is one of the primary gateways to your identity and if you are not sure that your online environment is secure, don’t give it out.
Now, if you are e-filing your return, there are some things you should keep in mind. ComputerWorld, in its article on the top 10 security tips for e-filing, walks you through everything you need to do before starting the online filing process. The article’s tagline is worth mentioning because it pretty much says it all: “Never do taxes at Starbucks, remove returns from PC after April 17.” Mashable’s recent post on how to protect your “private” tax information is another article you should bookmark. In particular, I would point you to the section on password protecting your life (see my post on how important it is to have strong passwords and tips on how to do so) as the best defense against security breaches and possible identify theft. And keep in mind that if you are using a tax preparer, you should understand how they are filing your taxes and whether they are following the U.S. government’s tax data security guidelines. The same goes for any third party software or sites you use to file your return.
Yes, this is just another thing to think about at a time when you probably have way too many numbers, deductions, gains and losses floating around in your head. But if you are filing your taxes online, it’s better to be safe than sorry: be secure out there!