How Do You Know if Your E-filing Service is Secure?

By Michael Osakwe, NextAdvisor.com

In this day in age, where even air fresheners are connected to the Internet, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that you should be security conscious about everything. From the stores and sites you use to the appliances you put in your home, Internet insecurity is a threat that can follow us anywhere. As such, it’s not surprising that you may find yourself asking if e-filing is a safe way to file your taxes, and wondering if there’s a way to verify the level of security a specific service provides. Luckily, such questions can easily be answered. Continue reading as we detail key security features that any trustworthy e-filing service should have.

What does ‘secure’ mean?

Security might mean different things to different people, however, generally when we consider sites secure on the Internet, it usually means they meet certain criteria — like being able to prevent eavesdropping by third parties and minimize the chances of data tampering. Certain well-known cybersecurity features can help accomplish this if properly implemented. While we’ve discussed these tips before, online security is really important, so we’ll go over them in detail within the context of using an e-filing service.

How to determine if a tax service is secure

There are two features that secure websites should offer. Before we dig into these, we should note that if you’re using a site that doesn’t offer these cybersecurity features, you’ll want to stop using it immediately and opt for another service, as it may not be a trusting, secure service.

Does the service have HTTPS?

HTTPS is a modification of the HTTP standard — a URL contains the letters “HTTPS” or “HTTPS” followed by “://” and then the actual website domain name. Any address containing “HTTPS” provides encryption by default. What this means is that any text you input onto the page or anything you’re looking at will come out as garbled nonsense to anyone eavesdropping on another machine from within your network or elsewhere. Modern browsers let users know a site has HTTPS by including a padlock or the color green in the left corner of the address bar. Newer versions of Chrome and Firefox don’t display the HTTP part of the URL in the address bar unless the site is using HTTPS, making it even easier to recognize when a website is secure. HTTPS is especially important for things like online banking or e-filing services because of the sensitive nature of the financial and personal information you’ll be sharing with the service.

Does the service have password guidelines?

Strong passwords are the Holy Grail of basic, common sense cybersecurity practices and for good reason. In an era where hackers can use computers make dozens of password guesses in a second, longer, more complex passwords are likely to be tougher to crack. As a way to help protect their customers, secure websites will usually provide guidelines or criteria that will promote stronger passwords. For example, the site will require you to create a password with at least a special character, capital letter and number. It should be noted that if a site doesn’t explicitly state its password guidelines, it doesn’t mean it’s an unsecure site, especially if it offers two-factor authentication, which brings us to our next point.

Is two-factor authentication an option?

While it’s not offered by every site, two-factor authentication is a feature that tax sites and other sites that store sensitive information, offer. This type of authentication requires you to verify your identity by confirming a code sent to your cell phone, landline or email after logging in with your password. The idea is that only someone with physical access to your device as well as knowledge of your password and email can log in. Two-factor authentication prevents individuals from having remote access to your account and reduces the odds that a stranger could access your account and tax information.

What are some reputable and secure services?

At the very least, any of the services that you are considering should have the key cybersecurity features we detailed above, but keep in mind that these features do not provide a 100% guarantee that a service won’t ever be breached. Even so, they do provide some serious barriers for hackers to get through before they can access your information. It should be noted that there are other factors, usually ones which constitute the back-end, or server side, of a service that may also determine how secure a site is. Unfortunately, as consumers, it’s difficult to be privy to this information, as some of it is not disclosed for security reasons and other parts, even if they were available, would be difficult to understand without knowledge of programming.

Fortunately, that’s where organizations like the Online Trust Alliance (OTA) come in. The OTA is an informal cybersecurity nonprofit and working group that provides research and feedback around issues relating to online security. Last year, the OTA released a report detailing the best and worse e-filing services, based on their internal and back-end security practices. The report placed the best ranking services – many of which we review – on their “honor roll.”

The list includes (in order of appearance):

  • eSmart Tax
  • FreeTaxUSA
  • TaxAct
  • H&R Block
  • TurboTax

For more information about the report and the criteria researchers used to evaluate these services, you can take a deeper look here.

With tax season well underway, now might be the best time to file and get the best deals available to you. If you’re still looking for a tax preparation service, check out our online tax prep reviews, where we compare some of the best services in the industry.

This blog post originally appeared on NextAdvisor.com.

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