Sullivan even suggests using one PC for your banking and financial transactions, and another device, such as a cheaper desktop, laptop, or tablet, for your personal browsing. Banking sites are typically very secure and are unlikely to put malware on your computer, he says, but the same isn't true about the rest of the Internet. If you can't afford or don't have access to separate devices, you can use separate browsers for financial and non-financial surfing. Another option is using security software that offers banking protection, which cuts off any connections other than the one to your financial institution.
All the experts we consulted advised against storing your tax and financial records on your PC once your taxes are filed. Keep them on an external hard drive or USB drive that's not constantly connected to your computer — and is therefore inaccessible by any malware that may infect your system. "You wouldn't keep your tax returns on your kitchen table, you'd put them in a filing cabinet out of sight," Sullivan says. "Treat your computer the same way."
Approach mobile apps with caution
Tax preparation and filing are going mobile — for some people, anyway. In recent years, apps from both H&R Block ($9.99) and TurboTax (free for federal, $14.99 for state) have been available for Android and iOS devices.
While the apps are convenient, they're designed primarily for folks with simple tax returns. The H&R Block and TurboTax apps are restricted to filing 1040EZs, and filing through the apps is pricier than doing so through your computer, where filing uncomplicated returns is often free. Pelgrin also says using a device with a bigger screen is preferable — if only to avoid making unnecessary errors, which can happen when trying to enter and verify information on a small display.
If you decide to file with a mobile app, standard security protocol still applies. In addition to ensuring your smartphone is patched and running the latest software, Pelgrin suggests installing security tools that allow you to wipe your device remotely if it is lost or stolen.
Also, don't file taxes while connected to public Wi-Fi networks, which are far less secure than those in your home or office. You run the risk of falling victim to a "man in the middle" attack, allowing a hacker to see everything you're transmitting over the Internet.
Don't be scared off by all these warnings. E-filing is by far the safest way to file your taxes, particularly if you follow the security measures outlined here.
"I trust computers a lot more than I trust people," Sullivan says. "A computer will do what you tell it; it's not going to try to screw you over. But a person might, whether it's an accountant or someone who comes across your personal info on a piece of paper somewhere."
And if that isn't enough to cheer you up, remember this: According to the IRS, e-filing not only reduces errors in tax returns, it also significantly speeds up the process of getting your return. Now there's something to smile about.
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