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Sniff Out Malware Before You Prepare Your Taxes!


What should I do to make sure my computer is safe to do my taxes online?


This question was answered on January 28, 2015. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

The security industry often refers to tax season as ‘Christmas for Hackers’ because they know that millions of Americans will be using their personal computers to prepare their tax returns.

Whether you use an online service, install software on your computer to file the return or simply prepare documents for a tax professional, you’re computer will be a prime target for Remote Access Trojans (RATs) and something known as a ‘keylogger’.

RATs are programs that give remote hackers full control over your computer and keyloggers are hidden programs that silently record every keystroke that you type.

Either of these malicious infections will provide hackers with everything they need to pull a common exploit: filing fake tax returns.

To underscore the threat, a 2013 Treasury Inspector General’s report disclosed that the IRS issued $4 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2012.

Once these sophisticated crime syndicates gain access to your computer, they generally file a fake tax return with a sizable refund and they do it quickly.

If they can file a return before you, they can convert the fraudulent refund into pre-paid credit cards that get sent to them and you won’t be aware of the mess until well after you filed your return.

The two big lessons to learn from this growing problem:

- Make sure your computer is malware free and performing properly before you start doing any sort of tax preparation
- File your return as early as you can

The most common complaint we hear from anyone with a computer is that it’s running a lot slower than it used to, but most seem to just live with it.

This is exactly what the hackers want you to do, because often times, their silent infections are contributing to the slower performance; if you ignore it, they can continue to exploit you.

If your computer takes forever to start-up, bogs down when you’re on the Internet or pops up with random errors from time to time, don’t ignore these symptoms.

One quick way to see if you should be concerned on a Windows computer is to check for the number of running processes.

Start by rebooting your computer and opening the Task Manager, which you can access by hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del.

For Windows 7 or older, the total number of processes will be displayed in the lower left corner of the Task Manager window.

Windows 8 users will see processes in groupings, so you’ll need to manually add the background processes with the Windows processes.

A well maintained desktop computer will have 45-55 processes running after a clean boot, while optimized laptops generally have 50-60 processes.

If you have significantly more running processes, it doesn''t necessarily mean that you’re infected, but it does mean you should have someone take a look ‘beneath the hood’ to see why.

The task of cleaning up the excess processes can vary widely based on whether your system is infected or not, which is why an experienced set of eyes is important.

Whether you’re infected or not, getting it cleaned up will ensure you’re safe to do your taxes and make it run better for everything else.

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Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on January 28, 2015