A word of warning is in order as the deadline for individual tax returns quickly approaches.
Many people are still finalizing their federal and state income tax filings. Eventually, you’ll finish the paperwork and get it ready to send off. If you’re using an online tool to do your taxes, you may be tempted to print the final documents to a PDF file and email it to yourself (or your spouse) for safekeeping. If someone else is doing your taxes, you might be considering emailing your documents to your tax professional.
In a word: DON’T.
Protecting Your Personal Information
The reason is simple. Your tax records, whatever form they’re in, contain personal information. Tax forms are actually one of the riskiest documents most people will ever handle because they include everything that an identity thief needs to cause real havoc in your life—your name, address, birth date, and Social Security number. Even if you’re sending a PDF as an attachment to an email, that attached document can easily be hijacked while in transit across the public Internet.
So what should you do instead?
- Use the cloud. Copy the files to a secure cloud storage system. There are plenty of free solutions out there, including Google Drive, Box, Apple iCloud, and Dropbox.
- Use a thumb drive. You can fit an entire lifetime’s worth of tax returns on a $10 USB flash drive. Note: if you use a thumb drive to transfer files from one computer to another, be sure to use a secure file deletion tool like Eraser or File Shredder to wipe the file in case you someday misplace your drive.
- Send an encrypted ZIP file. Most file compression tools support ZIP files with 256-bit AES encryption. If you absolutely must email sensitive files, ZIP them up with a good password before doing so. This may sound obvious, but make sure you don’t send the password in the email along with the file.
- Keep it paper. The safest way to keep information from Internet pirates is to not put it in digital form. Using paper instead of electronic documents virtually ensures that nobody will steal your identity from your tax filing.
Following this advice won’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll never get hacked, but it will certainly make identity theft less likely by protecting your personal information.