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5 ways to protect your identity (& money!) during National Tax Security Awareness Week (& year-round!)

Most of us are knee-deep (or deeper!) into holiday tasks, but the Internal Revenue Service thinks it's also a great time to think about security measures that can protect our tax data during the upcoming tax filing season.

Computer security screen via Wallpapers4screen.com

That's right, smack in the middle of seasonal shopping and parties, it's National Tax Security Awareness Week.

The IRS and its Security Summit partners from the tax software and preparation industry, the tax professionals' community and the state tax world are offering tips this week on scams to be guard against, as well as ways to prevent crooks from stealing our IDs and our future tax refunds.

"With holiday shopping underway and the 2017 tax season about to begin in January, we are entering a period where many people will be using sensitive financial and tax data on their computers," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement announcing the special week.

"In the months ahead, more than 100 million tax returns will be completed on laptops and desktops by taxpayers and tax professionals, making this the perfect time to take steps to protect your valuable information," noted the commissioner.

Here are five tax ID protection tip highlights from this week's alerts.

1. Use security software.
 Security software helps protect computers against the digital threats that are prevalent online. Essential tools include a firewall, virus and malware protection and file encryption if you keep sensitive financial and tax documents on your computer.

But beware. Crooks know you're looking for this protection, so don't buy security software that's offered as an unexpected pop-up ad on from an unsolicited email. Those offers are likely from scammers.

Once you've installed reputable security software, set it to update automatically. Malware, the common term for malicious software, evolves constantly, and your security software needs to be routinely updated routinely to keep up with the schemes.

2. Double check the URL. 
When searching for tax information from the IRS, make sure the URL ends with .gov, not .com or other extension. Con artists set up sites that mimic Uncle Sam's official tax agency website, but they use extensions other than .gov.

Also, for tax and other online financial transactions from shopping to banking, always make sure that the website uses encryption to protect your information. Look for https instead of http at the beginning of the web address. The "s" is for secure. And make sure the https prefix is on the site's pages, not just the home page.

3. Strengthen your passwords. 
This is an oldie, but very good piece of online security advice. Use passwords of eight or more characters, mixing letters, numbers and special characters. Don't use your name, birth date or common words. Don't use the same password for several accounts. Keep your password list in a secure place or use a password manager.

Don't share passwords with anyone. Calls, texts or emails pretending to be from legitimate companies or the IRS asking to update accounts or seeking personal financial information are almost always scams.

4. Ensure your wireless connection is secure. 
I still have a wired desktop personal computer, but I spend most of my time on my laptop that connects to the internet via Wi-Fi. And our local network is password protected, meaning neighbors can't suck our bandwidth and crooks can't just waltz onto our service and steal our info. If you have home or business Wi-Fi, makes sure it is similarly secured.

In that same vein, the IRS says "be cautious when using public wireless networks." I say don't use public Wi-Fi hotspots for tax or financial transactions at all. While these internet access options are convenient, they're often not secure. That's generally the case for a public Wi-Fi hotspot that doesn't require a password.

5. Be on the lookout for email phishing attempts. 
Never reply to emails, texts or pop-up messages asking for your personal, tax or financial information. Crooks like to impersonate businesses, such as your financial institution, tax software provider or the IRS, when asking you to update your account by clicking on the provided link.

You might think that after all these years and warnings, identity theft phishing would have run its course. Apparently not. The IRS says it saw an approximate 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents during the 2016 tax season.

So the IRS and I will say it again: Never click on links or attachments even if they seem to be from sources you trust. Instead, go directly to the purported sender's website or call them.

You can find more about being a safe and secure online taxpayer at the IRS' special Taxes. Security. Together. web page, as well as in IRS Publication 4524, Security Awareness for Taxpayers.

And remember, although we're still two or so months away from the official opening of tax season 2017, these tips can help you protect yourself from scammers and identity thieves during this online holiday shopping season.

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