6 safety tips for online tax filers

Unless you're requesting an extension, you only have a few days left to file your taxes. And if that's you, you're in good company: The IRS says a full third of Americans don't file until April 15.

In the rush to get your taxes done, you might be less diligent about detecting scams, fraud and schemes designed to separate you from your money or your identity. Or less focused on keeping your personal and financial information secure. With that in mind, here are some things to watch out for in this stressful time of year:

The IRS doesn't email taxpayers. That means you shouldn't respond to any messages -- no matter how official they look -- from the IRS. These are generally phishing schemes that hope to convince you to give up personal information or reveal details about your financials.

Never log into financial sites using a public hotspot. Have a few minutes to work on your taxes? At Starbucks? Don't. It's surprisingly easy for hackers to snoop on data being exchanged over a public hotspot, so you should never do anything involving personal information or financial transactions.

Use encrypted sites. Make sure that any site at which you plan to enter financial or tax information is secure. The universal symbol for that, of course, is a padlock in the browser's address bar. That tells you you're connecting using an https:// rather than an ordinary http:// connection. However, note that the "heartbleed" security flaw has made this simple distinction a lot more complicated. Heed these warnings as well.

Use a unique password. Good advice year-round: Be sure not to use the same password for your tax-prep website as any other site -- especially other financial sites or social media. No matter how secure your password might be, if it's compromised at one site (like a popular, but easily hacked social media site), you don't want the recovered password to work at a sensitive financial site as well. Keep the passwords different for every site you frequent, and use a password manager program to keep track of them.

Keep a local backup of your tax return after you file. Use the option to download a copy of your tax return and save it on a drive that gets backed up. That way, you always have access to your financials even if the site you filed from goes offline. Don't put all of your trust in a third party to keep your tax records safe.

Use common sense. Finally, use good judgment. The online world is rife with radical schemes to reduce your tax liability. But the reality is that income tax is constitutionally sound, and offers to reduce or eliminate your taxes are probably illegal. If in doubt, check with an accountant or take advantage of the online help that comes with many tax packages. TurboTax, TaxAct and H&R Block, for example, all offer access to credentialed tax experts, so you can ask questions about taxes, not just troubleshoot problems with the software.

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