I love technology. I truly do.
I’m not always perfect at using it as well as I could, but we do make it a point around here to stay as up-to-date as possible with the technology of what we do (in tax preparation, accounting, etc.), as well as the numerous other apps, tools and other software that we routinely access.
But I’m also very aware of the risks that many people take (often unknowingly) in surrendering so much data to large corporations, and other entities.
So today, I’d like to remind you (and myself) of the value of privacy and security in our modern age.
Yes, we gain so much with the advent of so much convenience, but unless we are careful, we can lose so much more than what we’ve gained.
I’m actually not even referring today to the profound social and cultural shifts that we’ve all been living through as communication has become so instantaneous and in our pocket. (Do you sometimes get nostalgic, as I do, for the 90’s, when we didn’t have much of an internet and cell phones were a luxury item, instead of a necessity?)
As much as I’d love to make an attempt at getting eloquent about our modern culture, today, I have a smaller target in mind. But it’s a subject that many of us don’t think enough about, and one that can truly wreck your life, if you’re unwise about it.
And hey — I’m a tax professional, so yes, you would probably expect me to be a little “careful”. But don’t ignore this stuff, and let me be the uptight one in the room, who very well might save your bacon.
Your thoughts, as usual, are welcomed.
“Real World” Personal Strategy Note
Common Sense Online Security (For Normal People)
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” -Winston Churchill
I’ll spare you the horror stories about the terrible things that can happen if you’re not careful online (but there are plenty if you want to google them).
We tax professionals recently received a notice from the IRS about how we are an increasingly ripe target for identity thieves and scammers. In New York state alone, the tax department has stopped more than 330,000 suspicious personal income tax refunds, catching nearly $500 million in attempted tax refund fraud.
And, of course, it seems a new data breach or famous hacking case is reported every week.
So, as a practice, we make it a point to go well beyond what I’m about to share with you here, in our office, simply because we handle so much sensitive information.
But for normal families, you don’t need to erect the kind of cyber fortress that we have here at Team McLaughlin … you just need to mind yourself with some simple steps.
I have thoughts on each area that you need to guard, and I won’t go into massive detail, but will hopefully give you some common sense guidelines for staying safe.
This means, essentially, don’t let your most private data get shared in an insecure way! SSN#, account numbers, DOB’s, etc. are big targets for thieves, so share that information only when you know WHY it is necessary, and when you are sure you’re in a secure environment. In other words, don’t email this data, certainly don’t post it on a website, and definitely don’t hand it over to someone you don’t know.
This also means that you should be extremely careful when you get rid of electronic devices that you have used (laptops, computers, and phones, etc.) — wipe them clean with a commercial-grade utility that will delete the data as permanently as possible.
Password and ID Theft Protection
There are plenty of great resources out there for effective password discipline. Basically, don’t use simple passwords, don’t use the same one everywhere, and for the love of Pete, invest in the security of a good password manager. These seem to be the most popular and effective: LastPass, Dashlane and 1Password.
Stop using “qwerty” or “12345” — PLEASE.
This can almost be summarized as: “Don’t fall for the fake emails that promise you free gift cards.” Be very, very careful about clicking links from email senders that you don’t know, and if anything automatically downloads on your computer that is an “.exe” file or some kind of program, don’t run it unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure you know it’s legit. Nobody legitimate is going to email you about how they “found a virus on your computer that can only be solved by clicking on this link.”
Keep your stuff updated and watch your statements.
The primary reason that many of your apps and operating systems on your phone and computer alert you to software updates is that they are protecting their system from security flaws. Run the updates! I know it can be a pain, but running outdated versions of commonly-used applications can expose you to risk.
And, of course, it probably should go without saying (I am a tax and financial person after all), but don’t allow the convenience of cloud banking to prevent you from carefully monitoring your financial statements each month. Even when you primarily use a debit card, many banks have great security teams who will handle fraudulent transactions and protect you from thieves. But they only work if you notice!
I do hope this helps, my friend. I’m truly dedicated to the success of your family — and to protecting your hard-earned assets. Can other tax professionals say that?
Valerie McLaughlin, EA