5 Tips for Improving Data Security During Tax Season

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted March 04, 2013

Death and taxes may be inevitable, but for small business owners they can also be equally scary.

Scammers work overtime to turn this yearly ritual into a nightmare for entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop shops. Crooks have caught on to the fact that big money and a whole lot of personal information pours across the Internet as small and midsized businesses (SMBs) gear up for tax season.

Financial data, earnings forms, tax filings... all make tempting targets for nefarious people looking to make a quick buck off your hard-earned success.

Small Business, Big Security Risk

Don't think that you're too small a business to escape the attention of hackers (the black hat kind). Grant McDonald, senior global product marketing manager, at Symantec told Small Business Computing, "Cyber attackers are shifting their attacks from enterprises to SMBs."

His company's Threat Matrix security monitoring and reporting service has observed the rise in attacks on SMBs, a direct correlation to the "decrease of targeted attacks on enterprise."

Why? Simply put, they make "an easier target than an enterprise with a dedicated IT staff," said McDonald, adding that attackers are wise to the fact that many SMBs contract with larger enterprises or are part of their supply chains. Small businesses make an attractive target for criminals looking for a backdoor into a bigger organization.

Criminals also bank on the chaos that surrounds tax season. Between feverish accounting, countless forms and looming tax deadlines, data security may be the last thing on a small business owner's mind.

So Symantec has been getting the word out with blog posts to remind small business owners to take their security seriously, particularly now, and to warn them about emerging schemes.

Here are Grant McDonald's tips to help you survive this tax season unscathed.

5 Tax-time Security Tips

1. Use Reputable Tax Software

To start, make sure that you know who you're dealing with. "Check the list of authorized e-filers on the IRS website," recommended McDonald. All it takes is a couple of clicks on the official IRS site.

"There have been incidences of fake software," said McDonald. And there are more than a few free websites that are "a big spoof." They exist just to harvest sensitive personal information.

2. Don't Fall for Phishing Scams

Scammers have upped their game, according to McDonald. In the past you could spot a phishing attempt a mile away. Typical giveaways: laughably poor grammar and wonky layouts -- but today online criminals are getting "sneaky, and very crafty," he said.

Delete "emails that purport to be from the IRS and banks asking for your sensitive data," instructed McDonald. They make look legit, and some are pixel-perfect clones of official emails, but don't be fooled. More importantly, don't click on any links.

If you're unsure about a particular email, log into your bank accounts manually using your browser on a secure PC or device (see below).

3. Secure Your Data and Network

Preparing a tax form or filing a return on your PC?

Before you fill out another field, stop -- save first, don't lose your work -- and make sure that your PC and network are up to the challenge of fending off malware and cyber intruders. Now is a good time to install and activate the latest anti-malware software, assess your local network to make sure that there are no unauthorized network shares or that an employee didn't open up some ports in your firewall without permission.

And don't overlook your wireless network. "It's amazing how many small businesses don't even set up a password on their Wi-Fi," said McDonald. That said, at least enable WPA on your company's wireless routers (WEP can be easily cracked).

4. Update Your Security

Are your malware definitions a little out of date? Are your passwords as strong as they could be? Does your firewall look like Swiss cheese?

You may have all the pieces to mount a defense against cyber intruders, but they're worthless if they're out of date. Now is the time to upgrade your security software update malware definitions and apply those pesky patches that you have been avoiding. Also remember to keep those plug-ins fresh, particularly Java and Adobe, suggested McDonald.

The point is to do it now, before some sensitive information leaks out of your network. "It's a simple thing to do. Make sure that you have your security up-to-date before you e-file," advised McDonald.

5. For the Millionth Time, Backup Your Data

You may be sick of hearing it, but apparently, the message isn't getting through to all small business owners. According to McDonald, there are "an alarming number that don't back up at all."

Backing up your data is one of the most effective ways of protecting against threats to your business, even if hackers aren't the cause. Files get corrupted, hard drives fail and a couple of careless mouse clicks can render your data irretrievable.

Turn tax time into backup season. Now that you're swimming in all of that sensitive financial and employee data, it's "a good time of year to be reminded that data backup is something that you need to do," says McDonald.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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