It's been quite a few years since this happened, but I remember getting my completed tax returns emailed to me by my accountant. No encryption, no security. Just my social security number, income, address and dependent social security numbers out there for any hacker to view. You can imagine my reaction.
That will not happen again - at least to me. But as most of the US population gets ready for the annual tax preparation extravaganza, and we get really rushed for time, we might be tempted to cut a few security corners.
Here is some advice. Don't.
Here are 3 things to NEVER do and alternative ways to stay secure
Rule 1. Never send a scanned image of your W2, 1099 or other documentation to anyone via email, unless you know the email and the image are securely encrypted. If you don't know if the email is encrypted or not, well just assume it isn't encrypted.
Alternative. Snail mail or walking the documents over to your preparer's office are good alternatives, but depending on where you are, that may not be feasible. Consider a highly secure (i.e. not free is one aspect to consider) service that will permit you and your preparer to upload and download encrypted documents securely. Many of these services permit you to use your smart phone for the encrypted document transfer. Make sure the service requires that you register and get a unique name and password.
Rule 2. No matter how convenient it is, or how pressed for time you are, never let your tax preparer or accountant send you your completed tax returns as an attachment to an email, unless he or she uses encrypted email.
Alternative. In-person visits, messenger or snail mail are alternatives, but as with Rule 1, there are secure alternatives available for document transfer. Ask your tax preparer about what service he or she uses, and how secure it is. If you are told it's a free service that "everybody" uses or if you don't feel comfortable with the answers you get, opt for the low-tech alternative.
Rule 3. Hackers know that now is the time that many people have confidential information floating around and so it's like hunting season on the unaware. Until your taxes are done and filed, never download a free offer you receive via an email or website and don't download an updated version of an application unless you know where it comes from. And even if you think you know where it came from, check out the URL in the address bar to make sure that you've really gone to a legitimate site. You don't want to accidentally install a program that records and transmits your keystrokes.
Alternative. If your tax preparer sends you a link to a site for secure documentation that might require you to register or input some information, touch base with your tax preparer via the phone to make sure he or she actually sent the link. If you've been asked to download an updated version of an application or free offer perhaps it can wait until you're done with your taxes.
Make a Phone Call
We do so many things over the internet now - shopping, taxes, paying bills - that we have gotten used to completing these tasks without dealing with any other person. But the information needed to complete your tax returns is so personal and so extensive that it requires a bit of extra caution. A phone call just to make sure your data is going to the right place can not only help prevent an unintentional or unauthorized disclosure of your personal information, but that phone call can eliminate the stress of any nagging doubt you might have that your privacy is protected.