Each year, about half of U.S. taxpayers rely on a tax preparer and a tax preparation service to help them file their required tax returns. These professionals offer a wide array of options, from a very simple franchise that plugs in the numbers on the consumer’s behalf to certified public accountants that know the ins and outs of the entire U.S. tax code. From accounting firms to walk-in services like H&R Block, TurboTax/Intuit, Credit Karma or Jackson Hewitt, these tax preparation services often have one major similarity: they are a hot target for hackers and identity thieves.
Trusting an outsider with highly-sensitive personal data is not something that people should take lightly. Having a professional take responsibility for the paperwork, helping to navigate the annual changes to tax laws and even assisting in the event of an IRS audit are all reason enough to pay someone to take care of the filing. However, the sheer volume of personally identifiable information (PII) that a tax preparer must collect and store means there are literal treasure troves of identities waiting to be compromised by a malicious actor.
There are plenty of ways that stolen PII from a tax preparation service can benefit a hacker. First, accessing a stolen return not only means the hacker can file the return for themselves and steal any refunds the consumer was expecting, it also means having the ability to file a fraudulent return every year. Hackers can cause even more harm with information gleaned from a tax preparer’s computer; credential stuffing is another major concern, as the complete information they might steal can be used to access the victim’s other accounts.
There are some important steps that consumers can take to protect themselves when using a tax preparation service. First, people should only choose a professional tax preparer who has a valid IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN), but also understand that there are many different services, ability-levels and offerings that a professional can provide. It is also important for a consumer to find out what the preparer’s credentials are—such as having an accounting degree or being a member of a professional organization—before signing on to work with them. Consumers should not hesitate to ask what information the preparer will be able to access, how that information will be stored and for how long, who will be able to access that information and other related questions. There have been many situations where tax preparation services and professionals have been the target of malicious actors and understanding how they are going to safeguard information is just as important as their capabilities.
More guidelines from the IRS are available, but consumers are also cautioned to begin using a nine to ten character passphrase in place of the traditional eight-character password. A passphrase is longer and easier to remember, which makes it both harder for fraudsters to guess and more likely that consumers will deploy a different passphrase for each account.
If someone falls victim to identity theft from a data breach, they can live-chat with an Identity Theft Resource Center expert advisor through the organization’s website, as well as call toll-free at 888.400.5530 for an action plan that is customized to their needs. The free ID Theft Help App for iOS and Android also provides a number of resources for consumers to use in the event of a data breach or suspected identity theft.
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