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Hack-proof your personal info this tax season

Tue, 03/16/2010 - 11:30am
ERIN CONROY - AP Business Writer - Associated Press

TAX HACKERS: Whether you're filing your tax return electronically, downloading forms or e-mailing your accountant, identity thieves are ready to pounce on any social security numbers, addresses and bank account numbers you may unknowingly divulge.

While tax preparation software such as Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax is safe to use, files stored on your computer are still vulnerable to hackers.

"People don't realize that they accidentally expose such sensitive information," said Todd Feinman, chief executive of New York-based computer security firm Identity Finder LLC. "Maybe it's a file on your desktop called 'tax form' that someone could find through peer-to-peer music or file sharing, or a downloaded virus that does nothing but search for those specific types of documents."

Feinman offers these tips for keeping your information secure during the tax season:

— Password-protect all tax returns that you print to PDF from your tax software so that social security numbers and financial information are protected.

— Configure all peer-to-peer file sharing programs to disable the sharing of your personal folders.

— Never e-mail forms with your social security number, or even files used to prepare tax returns if they already contain personal information. If you need to send forms to your accountant, leave your social security number out to be written in just before sending the form to the IRS.

— Delete e-mails purporting to be from the IRS that require personal information to process a return, rebate, or refund. The IRS will not contact you by e-mail, so this would likely be a phishing attack.

— Install the latest updates to your operating system so known Windows or Mac vulnerabilities can't be exploited by hackers.

— Any financial documents containing personal information that were used to prepare tax returns should be permanently deleted from your computer or encrypted with a password.

— Don't save passwords in Web browsers when accessing banks and other institutions, as they can be stolen if you ever get a virus, Trojan, or are hacked.

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GROCERY HOPPING: If you're struggling to make ends meet, re-evaluating your grocery bill and making small changes in shopping habits can help shave your overall spending and family budget.

"Reducing your weekly grocery bill by just $25 will add an additional $100 a month that can be used to pay down debt or add to a savings account," said Mechel Glass, director of education for Atlanta-based Consumer Credit Counseling Service.

CCCS gives this advice for cutting back before you get to the checkout aisle:

— Eat before you shop. Shopping on an empty stomach will always cost you more at the store.

— Look around. Many low-cost items, including store brands, are stocked on higher and lower shelves, while higher-priced items are at eye level.

— Make a list and stick to it. Planning your family's meals ahead of time will help you avoid impulse buys, and you'll be able to inventory what's already in the cabinets to avoid overstocking.

— Use coupons. Take advantage of special purchases and buy-one-get-one promotions. Web sites like couponmom.com, hotcouponworld.com and thekrazycouponlady.com have free printable coupons for deals on groceries and household items.

— Stock up during sales for staple items with a long shelf-life, but avoid buying things you wouldn't normally purchase just because you have a coupon.

— Buy in bulk — sometimes. It might be cheaper to buy three dozen eggs, but only if you don't end up throwing a dozen away because they expire. Consider shopping for bulk items with a friend and sharing the cost.

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