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IRS Releases Part 1 of a Five-Part Security Summit Tips for Tax Professionals

On July 21, 2020 the IRS and Security Summit partners issued specific guidance to assist tax professionals with implementing basic security measures. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) are urging organizations remain in a heightened state of alertness as cybercriminals remain active during COVID-19 and prey on vulnerabilities during this time. The IRS state tax agencies and nation’s tax industry created a five-part series called Working Virtually: Protecting Tax Data at Home and at Work.

Due to the fact that many tax professionals are working from home, this five-part series is designed to walk practitioners through various strategies to assess and secure their home and office data. The first recommendation that was released on July 21 outlines six basic security steps, “Security Six,” that every tax professional should take whether they are working in the office or remotely. This series will continue each Tuesday and end on August 18.

The “Security Six” protections that everyone, especially tax professionals handling sensitive data, should use are:

  1. Anti-virus software. It is essential that professionals purchase anti-virus software that scans computer files or memory for certain patters that can detect the presence of malicious software, also known as malware. Tax professionals should educate themselves on the type of anti-virus software, also called anti-malware software package that they purchase. Additionally, it is best practice to configure the anti-virus software so that it automatically scans specific files or directories in real time, rather than the individual performing their own manual scan. Tax professionals also should keep security software set to automatically receive the latest updates to ensure it is always current.

While anti-virus software should protect against spyware, a type of malware that steals    sensitive data and passwords without the user’s knowledge, individuals should never:

  • click links with pop-up windows, nor
  • download “free” software from a pop-up, nor
  • follow links that offer anti-spyware software.

This advice also pertains to phishing emails. Never open an email from a suspicious        source, click on a link in a suspicious email or open an attachment.

  1. Firewalls provide protection against outside attackers by shielding a computer or network from malicious or unnecessary web traffic and preventing malicious software from accessing systems. Firewalls can be configured to block data from certain suspicious locations or applications while allowing relevant and necessary data to pass through, according to CISA.

Properly installing a firewall is not full proof, however. Cybercriminals love phishing- don’t become the bait! Firewalls cannot protect data if an employee clicks on a link sent in a scam email or text message, or accidently installs malware. Stay vigilant when scanning emails and text messages, and make sure your employees are also aware of phishing and malware.

  1. Two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication is a free security feature that gives a user an extra layer of protection from being hacked, even if a cybercriminal obtains access to a user’s password. That is because, in addition to entering in the password, a user is prompted to enter a security code sent via text message.

Two-factor authentication is a basic security feature all professionals must use. Three-     factor authentication is even in use. Tax software providers, email providers and others that require online accounts now offer customers two-factor authentication protections to access email accounts. Using the two-factor authentication options offered by tax   software providers is critical to protect client data stored within those systems. Tax pros also can check their email account settings to see if the email provider offers two-factor protections.

  1. Backup software/ services.  Critical files on computers should routinely be backed up to external sources. This means a copy of the file is made and stored either online as part of a cloud storage service or similar product. Or, a copy of the file is made to an external disk, such as an external hard drive with multiple terabytes of storage capacity. Tax professionals should ensure that taxpayer data that is backed up also is encrypted – for the safety of the taxpayer and the tax pro.
  1. Drive encryption. Given the sensitive client data maintained on tax practitioners’ computers, users should consider drive encryption software for full-disk encryption. Drive encryption, or disk encryption, transforms data on the computer into unreadable files for an unauthorized person accessing the computer to obtain data. Drive encryption may come as a stand-alone security software product. It may also include encryption for removable media, such as a thumb drive and its data.
  1. Virtual Private Network. This is critical for practitioners who work remotely. If a tax firm’s employees must occasionally connect to unknown networks or work from home, establish an encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN) to allow for a more secure connection. A VPN provides a secure, encrypted tunnel to transmit data between a remote user via the Internet and the company network. Search for “Best VPNs” to find a legitimate vendor; major technology sites often provide lists of top services.

Review professional insurance policy

The guidance also reminds tax professionals to review their professional insurance policy to see if their business is protected should a cyberattack occur.

As a final note, tax professionals should seek out addition security best practices as recommended by the  IRS Publication 4557, Safeguarding Taxpayer Data (PDF), and Small Business Information Security: The Fundamentals (PDF) by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.