Question: 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? — Ralph
Answer: 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 six times more likely to be hacked.
Since Windows XP is really old (2001) and after April 8, 2014 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 startup and randomly gets hung up when you’re surfing around the Internet, these are indications that 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 is not running in the background.
If hackers can silently gather up your Social Security number and related tax information, not only can they steal your identity, 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 direct deposited into a temporary bank account way before the under-staffed IRS figures out what is going on.
This type of exploit can take advantage of you whether you installed the tax program on your computer or you use the 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 just 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 that you use for your tax preparation, you should be especially concerned as they tend to be much more willing to install new programs which also increase your chances of hidden malware.
• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.