How to Protect Your Computer Online

How to Protect Your Computer Online

Scammers, hackers and identity thieves are looking to steal your personal information – and your money. But there are simple steps you can take to help protect yourself, like keeping your computer software up-to-date and giving out your personal information only when you have a good reason.

We all have a role to play to protect your tax account. There are just a few easy and practical steps you can take to protect yourself as you conduct your personal business online.

Here are some best practices you can follow to protect your tax and financial information:

  1. Understand and Use Security Software.  Security software helps protect your computer against the digital threats which are prevalent online. Generally, your operating system will include security software or you can access free security software from well-known companies or Internet providers. Other options may have an annual licensing fee and offer more features. Essential tools include a firewall, virus/malware protection and file encryption if you keep sensitive financial/tax documents on your computer. Security suites often come with firewall, anti-virus and anti-spam, parental controls and privacy protection. File encryption to protect your saved documents may have to be purchased separately. Do not buy security software offered as an unexpected pop-up ad on your computer or email! It’s likely from a scammer.
  2. Allow Security Software to Update Automatically.  Set your security software to update automatically. Malware – malicious software – evolves constantly and your security software suite is updated routinely to keep pace.
  3. Look for the “S” for Encrypted “https” Websites.  When shopping or banking online, always look to see that the site uses encryption to protect your information. Look for https at the beginning of the web address. The “s” is for secure. Unencrypted sites begin with an http address. Additionally, make sure the https carries through on all pages, not just the sign-on page.
  4. Use Strong Passwords.  Use passwords of at least 10 to 12 characters, mixing letters, numbers and special characters. Don’t use your name, birthdate or common words. Don’t use the same password for several accounts. Keep your password list in a secure place or use a password manager. Don’t share your password with anyone. Calls, texts or emails pretending to be from legitimate companies or the IRS asking you to update your accounts or seeking personal financial information are generally scams.
  5. Secure Your Wireless Network.  A wireless network sends a signal through the air that allows you to connect to the Internet. If your home or business wi-fi is unsecured it also allows any computer within range to access your wireless and steal information from your computer. Criminals also can use your wireless to send spam or commit crimes that would be traced back to your account. Always encrypt your wireless. Generally, you must turn on this feature and create a password.
  6. Be Cautious When Using Public Wireless Networks.  Public wi-fi hotspots are convenient but often not secure. Tax or financial Information you send though websites or mobile apps may be accessed by someone else. If a public Wi-Fi hotspot does not require a password, it probably is not secure. If you are transmitting sensitive information, look for the “s” in https in the website address to ensure that the information will be secure.
  7. Avoid Phishing Attempts.  Never reply to emails, texts or pop-up messages asking for your personal, tax or financial information. One common trick by criminals is to impersonate a business such as your financial institution, tax software provider or the IRS, asking you to update your account and providing a link. Never click on links even if they seem to be from organizations you trust. Go directly to the organization’s website. Legitimate businesses don’t ask you to send sensitive information through unsecured channels.

NEW IRS GUIDANCE – “ABLE” Program Administration

New IRS Guidance – Simplify ABLE Program Administration

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently announced three (3) changes to the proposed rules for new tax-favored “Achieving a Better Life Experience” (ABLE) accounts for eligible disabled individuals that will be included in the final regulations when issued. These changes will make it easier for states to offer and administer ABLE programs.

States, program administrators and other interested commenters identified the three areas for change this summer during a 90-day comment period and at an Oct. 14 public hearing on the proposed implementation regulations. The new law, enacted last December, authorizes states to offer specially designed ABLE accounts to people who become disabled before age 26.

IRS Notice 2015-81, posted on IRS.gov, fully describes these changes. They include:

  • Categorization of distributions not required: ABLE programs need not include safeguards to determine which distributions are for qualified disability expenses, nor are they required to specifically identify those used for housing expenses. Commenters noted that such a requirement would be unduly burdensome and that, in any case, the eventual use of a distribution may not be known at the time it is made. Designated beneficiaries will still need to categorize distributions when determining their federal income tax obligations.
  • Contributors’ TINs not required: ABLE programs will not be required to request the taxpayer identification numbers (TINs) of contributors to the ABLE account at the time when the contributions are made, if the program has a system in place to reject contributions that exceed the annual limits. However, if an excess contribution is deposited into a designated beneficiary’s ABLE account, the program will need to request the contributor’s TIN. For most people, the TIN is their Social Security number (SSN).
  • Disability diagnosis certification permitted: Designated beneficiaries can open an ABLE account by certifying, under penalties of perjury, that they meet the qualification standards, including their receipt of a signed physician’s diagnosis if necessary, and that they will retain that diagnosis and provide it to the program or the IRS upon request. This means that eligible individuals with disabilities will not need to provide the written diagnosis when opening the ABLE account, and ABLE programs will not need to receive, retain, or evaluate detailed medical records.

Until the Final Regulations are issued, taxpayers may rely on the guidance in Notice 2015-81. More information on ABLE accounts, including the Proposed Regulations issued in June, can be found at irs.gov/Tax Benefit for Disability:IRC Section 529A.

Recognizing the special financial burdens faced by families raising children with disabilities, ABLE accounts are designed to enable people with disabilities and their families to save for and pay for disability-related expenses. Contributions totaling up to the annual gift tax exclusion amount, currently $14,000, may be made to an ABLE account each year (subject to a cumulative limit), and distributions, including earnings, are tax-free to the designated beneficiary if used to pay qualified disability expenses. These expenses can include housing, education, transportation, health, prevention and wellness, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services and other disability-related expenses.

How to Protect Your Personal Tax Data

IRS, States and Tax Industry Announce New Steps to Help Public Protect Personal Tax Data

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), state tax administrators and the private-sector tax industry recently announced a new campaign aimed at encouraging more people to protect their personal and financial data online and at home.

The “Taxes. Security. Together.” campaign is designed to raise public awareness that even routine actions on the Internet and their personal devices can affect the safety of their financial and tax data. The education campaign will complement the expanded series of protections the IRS, states and tax industry are putting in place for the start of the 2016 filing season to address tax-related identity theft.

“Identity thieves are evolving, and so must we. Everyone has a part to play,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “The IRS, the states and the tax industry are putting in place even tougher safeguards for 2016. But, we need the public’s help. We need people to join with us and take an active role in protecting their personal and financial data from thieves.”

The campaign — which will continue through the April tax deadline — was announced today at an event hosted by the Federation of Tax Administrators, comprised of state revenue departments across the nation. The effort is part of the Security Summit, a collaborative effort started in March between the states, the IRS and the tax industry.

The joint consumer campaign includes several components, including YouTube videos, consumer-friendly Tax Tips each week and local events across the country. Several IRS publications have been added or updated to help taxpayers and tax professionals. The information will also be shared across IRS.gov, state web sites and platforms used by the tax software community and others in the tax community.

“The governments and industry are taking new steps to protect taxpayers. To build on this even further, we are joining forces to share important information across our websites – whether it’s at the state level, in the tax industry or at the IRS. This is an unprecedented collaborative effort for tax administration,” said David Sullivan, Tax Administrator for the Rhode Island Division of Taxation and immediate past president of the Federation of Tax Administrators.

It is clear that increasingly sophisticated identity thieves have access to excessive amounts of personal and financial data, which they buy and sell on the black market, and use this data to file fraudulent tax returns using victims’ names and Social Security numbers. While the IRS, states and tax industry are taking new steps to toughen their systems to protect taxpayers, there are also things people can do as well.

“People handle some of their most sensitive personal and financial information when they prepare their taxes on their home computer. But when they sit down, we want to help make sure they are preparing their taxes on a device that is secure. Tax time is two months away, but it’s not too early for people to make sure they are doing the right things to protect themselves,” said Bernie McKay, an executive vice president at Intuit, one of more than 20 members of the tax industry participating in the Summit process.

The IRS, states and tax industry are urging the public to take active steps to protect themselves. The partners are encouraging people to:

  • Use security software to protect computers. This includes a firewall and anti-virus protection. If tax returns or sensitive data are stored on the computers, encrypt the files. Use strong passwords.
  • Beware of phishing emails and phone scams. A common way for identity thieves to steal names and Social Security numbers, passwords, credit card numbers, bank account information is to simply ask for it. Clever criminals pose as trusted organizations that you recognize and send spam emails, calls or texts. Their email may ask you to update a bank account or tax software account and provide a link that to a fake website that is designed solely to steal your logon information. They may call posing as the IRS threatening you with jail or lawsuits unless you make an immediate payment. They may provide an attachment which, if you download, will infect your machine and enable the thief to access sensitive files or track your key strokes.
  • Protect personal information. Do not routinely carry your Social Security number. Properly dispose of old tax returns and other sensitive documents by shredding before trashing. Check your credit reports and Social Security Administration accounts at least annually to ensure no one is using your good credit or using your SSN for employment. Oversharing on social media also gives identity thieves even more personal details.

“These are all basic, common sense steps that you no doubt have heard many times if you are a regular Internet user. But there are 150 million households that file taxes, and problems still happen. Security software still gets turned off. And there are still, on a regular basis, victims who are tricked by these clever phishing schemes. Not only can this harm the individuals attacked, this can have a direct impact on tax administration,” Koskinen said.

The partners are asking all tax preparers and businesses to share information with employees, clients and customers.

In March, Koskinen convened an unprecedented meeting of IRS, state tax officials and the tax industry to determine what additional steps could be taken. On October 20, the Security Summit participants provided an update to the public.

For the 2016 filing season, there will be new standards for logging onto all tax software products such as minimum password requirements, new security questions and standard lockout features. The software industry will provide more than 20 additional data elements from the tax return submission to the IRS and, in turn, to the states to help identity fraudulent returns. All parties agreed to information sharing on a weekly basis to help quickly identify and adjust to new and emerging tax-related fraud schemes.

The IRS also continues to work to help victims of identity theft and pursue criminals using identity information to file fraudulent tax returns. IRS Criminal Investigation has worked on thousands of identity theft cases. Since 2013, nearly 2,000 identity thieves have been convicted, with the average sentence running well over three years.

IRS REMINDER – Plan Now to Use Health “Flexible Spending Arrangements” (FSA) in 2016

IRS REMINDER – Plan now to Use Health Flexible Spending Arrangements in 2016

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently reminded eligible employees that now is the time to begin planning to take full advantage of their employer’s health flexible spending arrangement (FSA) during 2016.

FSAs provide employees a way to use tax-free dollars to pay medical expenses not covered by other health plans. Because eligible employees need to decide how much to contribute through payroll deductions before the plan year begins, many employers this fall are offering their employees the option to participate during the 2016 plan year.

Interested employees wishing to contribute during the new year must make this choice again for 2016, even if they contributed in 2015. Self-employed individuals are not eligible.

An employee who chooses to participate can contribute up to $2,550 during the 2016 plan year. Amounts contributed are not subject to federal income tax, Social Security tax or Medicare tax. If the plan allows, the employer may also contribute to an employee’s FSA.

Throughout the year, employees can then use funds to pay qualified medical expenses not covered by their health plan, including co-pays, deductibles and a variety of medical products and services ranging from dental and vision care to eyeglasses and hearing aids. Interested employees should check with their employer for details on eligible expenses and claim procedures.

Under the use or lose provision, participating employees often must incur eligible expenses by the end of the plan year, or forfeit any unspent amounts. But under a special rule, employers may, if they choose, offer participating employees more time through either the carryover option or the grace period option.

Under the carryover option, an employee can carry over up to $500 of unused funds to the following plan year—for example, an employee with $500 of unspent funds at the end of 2016 would still have those funds available to use in 2017. Under the grace period option, an employee has until 2½ months after the end of the plan year to incur eligible expenses—for example, March 15, 2017, for a plan year ending on Dec. 31, 2016. Employers can offer either option, but not both, or none at all.

Employers are not required to offer FSAs. Accordingly, interested employees should check with their employer to see if they offer an FSA.

 

Tax Considerations – Marketplace Open Enrollment

Three (3) Tax Considerations during “Marketplace Open Enrollment”

When you apply for assistance to help pay the premiums for health coverage through the “Health Insurance Marketplace”, the Marketplace will estimate the amount of the “premium tax credit” that you may be able to claim.  The Marketplace will use information you provide about your family composition, your projected household income, whether those that you are enrolling are eligible for other non-Marketplace coverage, and certain other information to estimate your credit.

Here are three (3) things you should consider during the Health Insurance Marketplace Open Enrollment period:

  1. Advance credit payments lower premiums – You can choose to have all, some, or none of your estimated credit paid in advance directly to your insurance company on your behalf to lower what you pay out-of-pocket for your monthly premiums.  These payments are called advance payments of the premium tax credit or advance credit payments.  If you do not get advance credit payments, you will be responsible for paying the full monthly premium.
  2. A tax return may be required – If you received the benefit of advance credit payments, you must file a tax return to reconcile the amount of advance credit payments made on your behalf with the amount of your actual premium tax credit.  You must file an income tax return for this purpose even if you are otherwise not required to file a return.
  3. Credit can be claimed at tax time – If you choose not to get advance credit payments, or get less than the full amount in advance, you can claim the full benefit of the premium tax credit that you are allowed when you file your tax return. This will increase your refund or lower the amount of tax that you would otherwise owe.

Know Your 2016 Retirement Plan Contribution Amounts

Know Your 2016 Retirement Plan Contribution Amounts

 

There are many benefits of participating in your employer’s retirement plan. For example, you can:

  • decrease your taxable income by making pre-tax salary deferral contributions if allowed by the plan; and

  • increase your retirement savings. For 2016, the maximum annual salary deferral contributions allowed are:

  • $18,000 to 401(k) or 403(b) plans

  • $12,500 to SIMPLE plans

If you will be 50 or older by the end of 2016, your retirement plan may allow you to make additional catch-up contributions. For 2016, you can make catch-up contributions of:

  • $6,000 to 401(k) or 403(b) plans

  • $3,000 to SIMPLE plans

You can find additional information on both employer and employee contribution limits to common types of retirement plans in IRS Publication 560, “Retirement Plans for Small Business (SEP, SIMPLE, and Qualified Plans)”.

IRS REMINDER – Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) Deadline for Retirees

IRS REMINDER – Most Retirees Need to Take Required Retirement Plan Distributions (RMD) by Dec. 31, 2015

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently reminded taxpayers born before July 1, 1945, that they generally must receive payments from their individual retirement arrangements (IRAs) and workplace retirement plans by Dec. 31, 2015.

Known as “Required Minimum Distributions” (RMDs), these payments normally must be made by the end of 2015. But a special rule allows first-year recipients of these payments, those who reached age 70½ during 2015, to wait until as late as April 1, 2016 to receive their first RMDs. This means that those born after June 30, 1944 and before July 1, 1945 are eligible for this special rule. Though payments made to these taxpayers in early 2016 can be counted toward their 2015 RMD, they are still taxable in 2016.

The required distribution rules apply to owners of traditional, Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) and Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees (SIMPLE) IRAs but not Roth IRAs while the original owner is alive. They also apply to participants in various workplace retirement plans, including 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) plans.

An IRA trustee must either report the amount of the RMD to the IRA owner or offer to calculate it for the owner. Often, the trustee shows the RMD amount on Form 5498 in Box 12b. For a 2015 RMD, this amount is on the 2014 Form 5498 normally issued to the owner during January 2015.

The special April 1 deadline only applies to the RMD for the first year. For all subsequent years, the RMD must be made by Dec. 31. So, for example, a taxpayer who turned 70½ in 2014 (born after June 30, 1943 and before July 1, 1944) and received the first RMD (for 2014) on April 1, 2015 must still receive a second RMD (for 2015) by Dec. 31, 2015.

The RMD for 2015 is based on the taxpayer’s life expectancy on Dec. 31, 2015, and their account balance on Dec. 31, 2014. The trustee reports the year-end account value to the IRA owner on IRS Form 5498 in Box 5. Use the online worksheets on IRS.gov or find worksheets and life expectancy tables to make this computation in the Appendices to Publication 590-B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs).

For most taxpayers, the RMD is based on Table III (Uniform Lifetime Table) in IRS Publication 590-B. So for a taxpayer who turned 72 in 2015, the required distribution would be based on a life expectancy of 25.6 years. A separate table, Table II, applies to a taxpayer whose spouse is more than 10 years younger and is the taxpayer’s only beneficiary.

Though the RMD rules are mandatory for all owners of traditional, SEP and SIMPLE IRAs and participants in workplace retirement plans, some people in workplace plans can wait longer to receive their RMDs. Usually, employees who are still working can, if their plan allows, wait until April 1 of the year after they retire to start receiving these distributions. See Tax on Excess Accumulations in IRS Publication 575. Employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations with 403(b) plan accruals before 1987 should check with their employer, plan administrator or provider to see how to treat these accruals.