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Warning: Read this before doing taxes in Windows XP

Friday - 2/7/2014, 6:50am  ET

tax computer (thinkstock)
A popular operating system is about to be retired a week before the IRS tax deadline. (Thinkstock)
By Ken Colburn, Data Doctors

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Ralph asks: I know Windows XP is about to be retired, but is it safe enough for me to do my taxes or should I upgrade it first?

Your mindset to upgrade your operating system before you start preparing your tax return is a pretty smart approach, given the recent warning from Microsoft that Windows XP is 6 times more likely to be hacked.

Since Windows XP is really old - it was introduced in 2001 - and after April 8 this year will no longer get security updates, you may as well put yourself in a more secure position for something you're going to have to do anyway.

This is not to say that you can't do your taxes on a Windows XP system, but since it's so much easier for hackers to silently slip in, you should make absolutely sure that it's clean before you start inputting sensitive information.

Making sure any computer running any version of Windows is clean before preparing your taxes is always a good idea, but especially critical for Windows XP users.

If your computer takes forever to start-up and randomly gets hung up when you're surfing around the Internet, these are indications you have excessive processes running or unnecessary browser add-ons. And some of them could be hidden malware.

A well maintained Windows XP system will only have 35-40 processes running after a clean start.

You can check this by rebooting your computer and hitting Ctrl-Alt- Del to bring up the Task Manager. You can see how many processes are running by looking in the bottom left corner of the Task Manager window.

If you have more processes running than that, it doesn't necessarily mean you're infected, but you should have a qualified technical person examine the system to make sure a hidden program isn't running in the background.

If hackers can silently gather up your Social Security number and related tax info, not only can they steal your identity, but they can file a fraudulent tax return before you do, which you won't discover until the IRS notifies you that duplicate returns have been filed.

Tax refund-based identity theft is on the rise because criminals can have the fraudulent refund sent through direct deposit into a temporary bank account, long before the understaffed IRS figures out what is going on.

This type of exploit can take advantage of you regardless of whether you installed the tax program on your computer or you use online tax preparation services, because it's just recording your keystrokes.

This malware is known as a key logger and can often evade antivirus programs because it looks like a regular program that was installed without your knowledge.

It's a simple way for remote hackers to easily gather the information they need for ID theft during the tax preparation season.

If you've ever installed a legitimate program and later discovered a toolbar or other additional programs were installed at the same time, that's the same process used by key logger programs - only they don't announce their presence.

If you have kids or teenagers that use the same computer you use for tax preparation, be especially concerned - youngsters tend to be much more willing to install new programs, which increases your chances of having hidden malware.

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