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Safeguards are in place for tax data

I read about the South Carolina issue in which millions of taxpayers' tax returns were hacked and personal information obtained by the hackers. Do you know if Social Security numbers are encrypted on Oregon's tax returns?

— Daisy R., Medford

To get your answer, Daisy, we went to the Oregon Department of Revenue, which handles tax returns for the state. A spokesman there said Oregon has a much more secure system than South Carolina.

For readers who may have missed it, hackers were able to get access to nearly 5 million Social Security numbers and 3.3 million bank account numbers from South Carolina taxpayers.

A report on the fiasco noted that, among other things, Social Security numbers were not encrypted.

Dennis Thompson, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Revenue, said the department is acutely aware of the South Carolina issue. But Thompson said Oregon tax returns submitted through e-filing are encrypted using standards set by the federal Internal Revenue Service. Taxpayers' returns are transmitted directly into the Oregon Department of Revenue's computer system without passing through any human hands. E-filers receive immediate confirmation that the department has received their return.

And that means a lot of confirmations. Thompson says that for tax year 2009, the most recent year for available stats, Oregon taxpayers e-filed 1,046,156 returns. That represents 66 percent of the total returns filed that year.

Thompson also provided a few tips on how you can protect the personal information that accompanies your tax returns:

  • Ask your tax preparer about the steps they take to protect clients' privacy.
  • Use anti-virus and anti-spyware programs to protect your home computer, and set strong passwords to keep strangers out of your accounts.
  • If mailing your return, walk it into the post office and hand it to an employee. Send it by certified mail so you will know it arrived at the Department of Revenue safely.
  • Shred any copies of tax documents you no longer need.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.