Before sending your tax documents to your certified public accountant, enrolled agent or another tax professional, you’ll want to make sure that your documents will be delivered in the most secure and reliable method possible. Why? Tax documents contain very sensitive information about you: your name, your address, how much money you make, where you bank. If that data falls into the wrong hands, you could end up the victim of identity theft. But there are other risks as well. If the data is lost, misplaced or damaged, will you have a backup copy? Here are tips for making sure your documents and your data are secure.
Make a list of all your tax documents.
A simple first step is making sure you have a list of all your W-2s, 1099s, and other tax-related documents. This list accomplishes two purposes. First, you’ll have a list of all the documents you sent to your accountant. If something gets lost, you’ll know what it was. Second, you’ll have the start of a checklist for next year’s tax preparation, since you’ll know what documents to expect in the mail.
Make backup copies of all your original documents.
There are any number of ways to do this. You could photocopy all your documents. Or you could scan them into image or PDF files. The idea is to make a backup copy before sending them to your accountant, just in case.
Delivering tax documents in person is the most secure method.
In the movies, when one spy wants to ensure that a document is delivered to the right person at the right time without being intercepted, the spy will deliver the document in person. You can put this old-school tactic to work for you: by delivering your tax documents in person, you ensure that the documents are delivered to the right person (your accountant) without getting lost in the mail or intercepted by eavesdroppers.
Mailing documents is more secure than email.
Mail delivery is pretty secure. Your documents are protected from casual evesdropping by virture of being wrapped in an envelope. And at least in the United States, opening someone else’s mail is a crime. That won’t deter a determined criminal, of course, but at least there are laws on the books to punish offenders. Still, documents can sometimes get lost or damaged in transit to their final destination. That’s why I suggest sending your backup copies, not the original tax documents themselves. And consider using some form of delivery or signature confirmation.
Faxing documents is secure, but watch out for the quality.
Faxing documents to your accountant can be a quick way to deliver documents, and it’s relatively secure. As long as the accountant’s phone line isn’t tapped, chances are good that your transmission won’t be intercepted by identity thieves. Still, faxed documents are sometimes hard to read. And the last thing a tax professional really wants to do is sit there guessing whether a number is a six or an eight. Faxing seems to work best if there are a few pages that need to be sent. For longer documents, and especially for documents containing information on both sides of the page, faxing may not be an optimal solution.
If you must e-mail, use encrypted file attachments
Email is certainly convenient and fast, but email has the same level of security as a postcard. Any network carrier can see the contents of your email. (Whether they are paying attention and actually tracking the contents is besides the point: there’s still the potential.) At the very least, place your tax documents inside an encrypted wrapper such as password-protected DOC, PDF or ZIP files. It’s also a very good idea to encrypt the email message itself using PGP encryption.
What not to do? Do not send un-encrypted file attachments via email. Also, do not send financial information you want to keep private (such as your Social Security number) as plain text in the body of your email message. What if you accidentally send the message to the wrong address? Or worse, your email is scanned and the data harvested by your service provider? Taking precautionary steps to secure your tax documents help protect your finances.