Beware: Tax season is Christmas for hackers

PHOENIX — Q: What should I do to make sure my computer is safe to do my taxes online?

A: 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, your 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; 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 phony return before you file your genuine return,  they can convert the fraudulent refund into pre-paid cards that get sent to them, and you won’t be aware of the mess until well after you’ve 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 an infected 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, because often 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 whether 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 to 55 processes running after a clean boot, while optimized laptops generally have 50 to 60 processes.

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

Windows users are the primary targets because of the sheer number of users.

iPad users who don’t jailbreak their device aren’t currently at risk for this particular exploit but Mac users who don’t keep their systems updated, including OS, browsers and utilities (such as Adobe Flash) can potentially be exploited, though the risk is low.

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 your computer cleaned up will ensure that you’re safe to do your taxes and make it run better for everything else.

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