Filing Taxes Online? Take a Pass on Public Wi-Fi

April 13, 2015 @ 5:08 PM
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2 min read

According to new research from identity protection firm Protect Your Bubble, 46 percent of Americans are now filing taxes online each year. The problem? Sixty-five percent of those filers are using public Wi-Fi networks to do so, leaving them open to potential cyberattacks. Are great refunds worth this kind of risk?

Wi-Fi Worries

Many businesses now offer public Wi-Fi to customers, and the ubiquity of online interactions often dulls users’ security senses. They think the business surely must use some form of encryption or Wi-Fi Protected Access. However, according to Network World, the following are some of the easy ways cybercriminals can grab user data, even on encrypted Wi-Fi networks:

  • Network Sniffing: Using a sniffing application, malicious actors intercept and read all visible traffic on a channel. Even encrypted networks may be vulnerable if attackers can sniff out the pre-shared key or if network administrators choose an easy-to-guess password.
  • Third-Party Data Gathering: Data is sometimes collected by the same business offering the Wi-Fi connection. While there may be no ill intent, the collection and storage of this data puts it at risk.
  • Malicious Access Points: Is the “Coffee Shop” network really provided by the business itself, or is it a dummy network set up to trick unsuspecting users? Unlocked or generically named Wi-Fi hotspots can trick even the savviest of Internet users.

Of course, just accessing an insecure Wi-Fi network doesn’t put data at risk, but nearly two-thirds of online tax filers are now willing to send their returns via these networks. This is a massive opportunity for attackers, given the large amount of personally identifiable information (PII) contained in a tax return, from Social Security numbers to dates of birth, income totals, addresses and phone numbers. This is everything a cybercriminal needs to impersonate citizens and redirect their tax return or open a fake credit card account.

Why Wi-Fi?

So why are users willing to put their data at risk? According to Protect Your Bubble’s Brian Richards, “They could be getting comfortable in a routine and not be aware of the Wi-Fi they’re logged in to.”

In other words, it’s easy to get distracted by ease of use. When smartphones, tablets and laptops all easily or automatically connect to the Internet, users can fall into the trap of assuming that all connections are inherently secure or that there is enough traffic constantly generated that their small piece of PII is relatively safe. There is also the problem of home networks. Many users don’t create strong passwords — or any passwords at all — for their home Wi-Fi networks, making them just as vulnerable as the publicly available connections in coffee shops and airports.

When it comes to filing taxes online, two rules apply. First, always use a secure connection. This could be a desktop with a wired router connection or via a laptop over a password-protected, well-encrypted corporate network. Second, always keep an eye out. No connection is 100 percent secure, and taxes contain some of the most valuable PII available to cybercriminals. Always be on alert for odd emails, strange phone calls or bank activity that may indicate PII has been compromised.

The IRS is making Americans’ lives easier with online tax filing, but convenience isn’t worth identity compromise.

Douglas Bonderud
Freelance Writer

A freelance writer for three years, Doug Bonderud is a Western Canadian with expertise in the fields of technology and innovation. In addition to working for...
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