Private Data - Becomes Public In Shared Files
By VICTORIA LIM
The Tampa Tribune
April 22, 2007
More taxpayers turned to the convenience and speed of their computers to complete their returns this year. The Internal Revenue Service estimated close to 6 percent more taxpayers electronically filed - or "e-filed" - their returns than last year.
The IRS encouraged e-filing as a fast, secure and more accurate method, versus paper filings.
But whether or not your e-filed return is secure depends on where it's saved in your computer.
Sharing Too Much
Donna Krause of eastern Pennsylvania found that out when I called and recited her Social Security number, her husband's Social Security number and details of their 2005 tax return.
I don't know Krause. She doesn't know me. But her personal information showed up through a peer networking software search. Anyone can use that information to steal the couple's identity.
"Oh my God, you know? It's running through my mind?what kind of mess this can possibly put us in," Krause said.
Her husband uses peer networking software to share music with others who use the same program. That's commonly what these types of programs do: enables users to share music, videos, and pictures.
But some users, like Krause, inadvertently save other information in the same "shared files" folders.
"This is the very same thing as you taking your income tax form to downtown Tampa and standing outside, saying, 'would anyone like a copy of this?'" said Jim Sudberry, director of Hillsborough County's Consumer Protection and Professional Responsibility department.
Scores Of Sensitive Data
To show how easily accessible some computer users are making their personal information, Sudberry conducted a simple search in a peer networking program.
Scores of tax returns for consumers across the country popped up. So did a letter to authorities in London from a woman living there who provided details of an abusive relationship. We saw banking information and transaction history for a customer in Santa Barbara, Calif. - complete with account numbers, a couple of graduate student theses and a resume from a man in Canada.
"What I consider really dangerous is when I look at a tax return, I would expect one person to have it because [the user] put it on there. But what's really concerning is when I see that four or five people have that same tax return on their computer," Sudberry said. "Why would they want your tax return?"
Peer networking software users can protect sensitive information by checking the "shared" files on their computer and making sure it doesn't contain information no one else should see. You can also reset your file sharing program so that you don't automatically save content in your "shared" file.
If you have a consumer question, call the help line between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays at 1-800-338-0808.