Keep Your Data Safe When Telecommuting

Thanks to the Web, more and more people are working remotely -- from home or anywhere. But not commuting anymore doesn't mean you don't have the same security issues that your corporate-office counterparts do. Here's how to protect your data, devices and computer without an IT department:

1. Back up your data in the cloud.
It’s easy to lose all your work: One computer virus or hard-disk-drive meltdown, and your important files may vanish forever. That’s why, when working from home, backup is crucial. Instead of depending on bulky hardware, try the many cloud services on the Web. They back up new content every night while you sleep, keeping your files safe and allowing you access from any computer at any time.

"Backup used to be cost-prohibitive," says Phil Montero, founder and CEO of an online resource called You Can Work From Anywhere. But these days, many online services charge as little as $50 per year, depending on your needs. Mozy even offers certain amounts of backup for free. If you’re only backing up documents, Google Docs is another good bet.

2. Protect your computer and critical files.
If your employer issues you a PC or laptop to use at home, they'll often install security software or a Web-based security service to block viruses or bar hackers. But if you are self-employed, the burden of protecting your computer and data from the increasing array of online security threats falls squarely on your shoulders.

When choosing a cloud-based security service, be sure it protects your computer with antivirus, spyware and firewall programs. It should also constantly updates to protect you against evolving threats.

You should also limit your family members’ access to your work computer. "You have to be sure that the really critical stuff isn't made accessible to someone who shouldn't have access to it," says Jack M. Nilles, founder of JALA International, a global telecommuting consulting company. "That includes the kids getting on your computer and downloading something [harmful]."

Finally, keep passwords and ID numbers private so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.

3. Seamlessly collaborate with others.
Whether you work on your home computer once a week or full time, if you need to share files with colleagues, synchronization tools can help ensure you (or your team) are working on the correct or latest version of a document. The “old” way to do this was to copy the files from your home computer onto an external hard drive, CD or thumb drive and install them on your work computer. But this process sets you up for accidentally writing over the most recent files -- and what if this external backup device you were depending on is destroyed or lost?

Cloud services enable you to sync automatically to ensure speedy backups. Or try Microsoft’s FolderShare, which allows you to synchronize files with colleagues over the Web.

There's no doubt to the benefits of Web to the home office worker. That said, you want to be smart about security issues. To really cover your bases, in addition to backing up and securing your data, Niles also says it's important to get a clear protocol from your company or clients: "We recommend that telecommuters working for a company have a formal agreement specifically stating who is responsible for what." This way, you can always fall back on the agreed-upon security plan for your best-quality work away from your IT department.

Web Tools for Starting a Small Business

More and more people own home-based businesses. And these days, Web-based services make it even easier than ever before to get your small business up and running. “It used to be, back then, that you would be embarrassed about working from home,” says Barbara Weltman, an attorney and author who started a business in her Millwood, N.Y., home in 1983 and has since written numerous books on small business, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Starting an eBay Business. “You took an outside address so it wouldn't sound like you were out in the suburbs. But that's not so anymore.”

Web-based tools can now help you start a business, get legal work done, professionalize your accounting and billing, and collaborate with others. If your home business still needs to get out of the dark ages -- or you want to get off on the right foot -- here is how Web resources can help you get organized:

Step 1: Research how to start your business.
If you're just launching your business, the Internet is a great place to start your research. For basic information and resources, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)  offers tips on setting up a business, getting financing and whether there are any government programs for which your business may qualify. In addition, the Business Owner's Toolkit helps you select a business, write a plan, get loans, market your work and more.

Step 2: Make sure your business is legal.
Most state government websites allow you to download the forms you need to incorporate or to form a limited liability company (LLC). You can always hire a lawyer to help, but a lot of do-it-yourself resources online make such paperwork easy to navigate. BizFilings or Legal Zoom feature resources you can use to make your own legal decisions -- such as whether you should file for an LLC versus other types of corporations like a C Corp.

For tax liability issues, Weltman recommends turning to government tax websites, such as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and state tax departments, to research any obligations that you may have to meet. You can download the tax booklets you need and place an online order for a federal employer identification number or state sales tax number.

“You also have to be aware that if you have any employees, including yourself, and you incorporate, there may be labor rules you need to know about,” adds Weltman. She recommends federal and state labor department websites to research labor laws.

Step 3: Get cloud-based finance and accounting services.
Many home businesses rely on popular accounting desktop software, such as QuickBooks from Intuit. But QuickBooks now has a cloud-based subscription offering, which means that all your business financials can be maintained online. So if your computer gets stolen or crashes -- or you’re on the road -- you can still access and download your records from any online computer. And so can your bookkeeper or accountant.

One free product that Weltman recommends is MyBizHomepage which extracts information from your QuickBooks software and displays it on your computer screen in an easy-to-understand “financial dashboard” graphic. “It lets you follow -- for free -- all your cash flow, so you know when things are going to be collected and when things are owed,” says Weltman.

Outright.com is another free online accounting service for light accounting needs, such as tracking income expenses and tax obligations. Bill.com costs $25 per month for one user and automates many aspects of small-business accounting.

Step 4: Stay organized.
One of the drawbacks to running a business from home has traditionally been the difficulty of staying on the same page with others. But not anymore. You can get organized with a bevy of cloud-based tools. For starters, you may already be using an online calendar tool, such as Google Calendar, which you can share with clients or business partners to schedule meetings.

iGoogle is free too and lets you bring all your tools together in once spot including Google Tasks or apps you select like SmartSheet, which offers template spreadsheets you can use to manage and share projects online. Or you can manage projects, contacts and documents with a cloud-based tool like the $99-a-month suite from Highrise -- which you can also access from your mobile device. And if you need a truly “virtual assistant,” Onebox manages your calls, faxes and conferencing entirely online for between $49.95 and $99.95 a month, depending on how many extensions you need.

Shopping Online? Best Deals for Moms

Statistically, moms still control the proverbial purse strings in many families -- and online shopping outlets have caught on. Sites of all sizes and categories are offering the best deals and perks just for mom consumers, who welcome not only the savings, but also the added convenience.

“I think online shopping is one of the greatest things to happen to modern motherhood,” says Mir Kamin, an Atlanta-based mom and what’s called a “DealProorSavings.com. “When you’ve got little kids, the idea of even just running to the grocery store to get cereal can be daunting. Being able to sit in your pajamas at the comfort of your computer and have it delivered for less hassle and money? Amazing!”

Linsey Knerl, a mother of five based in the tiny town of Tekamah, Neb., couldn’t agree more. The extremely rural nature of her surroundings makes it tough to trek out for necessities, and shopping online helps deliver her family’s needs to their doorstep. She often checks sites like Alice.com and BabyCheapskate.com for new deals. She also uses Amazon Mom on a regular basis.

“I save at least 20 to 30 percent on my total spending, but I also value the peripheral savings,” says Knerl. “When I go shopping, I usually have to bring all five kids, which means I’m driving the Suburban. Shopping online saves us hundreds of dollars per year on gas alone.”

So how can you make online shopping work for your family’s needs -- and your budget? Find out where the best deals are and how to make the most of them:

Online Shopping Tip No. 1: Look for websites that pack a double savings punch.
For instance, those with a free Amazon Mom membership get not only 30 percent off diapers and wipes through its Subscribe & Save program, but also three free months with Amazon Prime (which affords free 2-day shipping on most products). For every $25 spent, another month is tacked on to the free Amazon Prime access. “When I order anything at all -- from cereal to parts for my husband’s car -- we get it shipped in two days for free,” says Knerl of her Prime benefits. “I have one year banked where I don’t have to pay any shipping costs.”

Online Shopping Tip No. 2: Let the best deals come to you.
Some moms don’t have time to comparison shop or search for deals, and that’s where time-saving resources like DropDownDeals.com come into play. After downloading a plug-in, users can visit various retail websites, and available coupons will automatically be displayed for that merchant. Time-strapped moms can also subscribe to services like ZingSale or DealNews email alerts, which send shoppers customized sale and savings notifications.

Online Shopping Tip No. No. 3: Look beyond Groupon for the best deals.
“In the wake of the recession, everyone wants a bargain, and retailers are sensitive to that,” says Kamin, who also runs the blog WantNot.net. “That’s why we’re seeing an explosion of Groupon-style sites.” No doubt about it: Groupon has started a major trend in the daily deals arena, and many similar sites with exclusively family-focused offerings are now popping up. BabySteals and  FamilyFinds are just a few popular sites in the cloud in this growing category.

Online Shopping Tip No. 4: Translate the savings to your brick-and-mortar experience.
Even when you’re not shopping online, you can still employ your Web savvy to save big bucks. (Research shows that $917 billion of 2009 retail sales were Web-influenced!) Sites like  SaleLocator point shoppers to local sales and even help users determine the best driving route to maximize time and gas mileage.

Tax Filing Made Easy Online

W-9s and 1040s and Schedule C’s … oh my! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at tax time. But like many Americans, you can now turn to the Web to simplify the tax filing process.

Tammy Stachowiak of Lyndhurst, Ohio, for example, has e-filed ever since hearing about it in 2008. It not only provides almost-instant gratification (Stachowiak receives her return within two weeks), but also helps with prep work. “When we used the old-fashioned way of filing by mail, there was always some form we needed -- whether for school reimbursement or my real-estate business -- that we would either have to retrieve from the IRS website or get faxed to us,” says Stachowiak. “With e-filing, I don’t have to try and track down forms I need.”

What resources might work for you and your family? Here’s our short guide to help you get started.

1. Choose the Right Tax-filing Cloud Service
You can prep, file and store your tax documents in the cloud. But which program should you choose to streamline your tax filing process? Compare these popular choices:

    •  Free File 
    Cost:
    Free for federal and state if you made $58,000 or less
    Benefit: Free File is a federal e-filing program developed by the IRS and the Free File Alliance (a group of private-sector tax software companies) for eligible taxpayers. Check the IRS’s Free File page here, which lists companies that offer free tax-prep services.

    •  TaxACT 
    Cost: Free federal; $9.95 deluxe federal; $17.95 deluxe federal and state
    Benefit:
    TaxACT offers a maximum refund pledge, guaranteeing its results and offering product refunds to those who find better tax refunds elsewhere. The deluxe edition walks you through “life changes” that may have changed your tax write-offs, and lets you transfer key information from your prior year’s tax return (e.g., your IRS PIN and stock information).

    •  TurboTax 
    Cost:
    Free federal; $29.95 federal and state
    Benefit: Those with more complicated tax returns that include anything from homeownership to substantial medical expenses can turn to TurboTax Deluxe on the Web. The site also offers tax prep and filing plans for those with investments, rental companies as well as businesses.

    •  H&R Block 
    Cost:
    Free federal; $19.95 federal and state
    Benefit: The main difference between H&R Block and TurboTax is the cost, and according to some reviewers like CNET, it offers a bit more tax guidance. It also offers tax prep plans for homeowners, investors and the self-employed.

    •  SnapTax 
    Cost:
    $14.99 federal and state
    Benefit: This app offered by TurboTax lets you go mobile with tax filing. If you have a simple return (e.g., 1040EZ), you’ll be able to take pictures of your W-2 forms and transfer the data into your tax return, as well as ensure accuracy before filing.

2. Store Your Tax Filing Paperwork Online
With so many tax forms to keep track of, it’s easy to feel scattered or to misplace necessary items just when you need them most. Use Evernote , a free Web service and mobile app, to consolidate all your tax forms, receipts and other paperwork you’ll need to do your taxes. (Since Evernote is in the cloud, you’ll be able to access your forms from anywhere.) Forms can be added via camera phone, scanner or snail mail, and they can be stored in a central folder tagged “Taxes” for easy future reference.

3. Mind Your Privacy
As online tax filing becomes increasingly popular, it’s more important than ever to keep security concerns in mind. Before using any online tax-filing services, ask yourself the following:

  • Is the site secure? If the page URL starts with “https:” when you go to enter your personal information, you can rest assured that your SSN or other personal data is secure. Also look for the “TRUSTe” and “authorized IRS e-file provider” seal on the site.

  • Does the site have a green bar? The IRS now requires all sites accepting individual tax returns to display a green Web address bar with a padlock icon. This green bar should feature the legal name of the company.

  • Are you protected from malware? Hackers use malware to try to steal information. To ward off such attempts, install an up-to-date security program or subscribe to a Web-based service.

“I’ve dealt with numerous identify theft issues when shopping online over the years, but I still have absolutely no concerns about filing my taxes online,” says Amy Lamare, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who e-files online each year. “I trust they won’t turn around and sell my information, and it’s saved me so much money!”

By keeping these protections and precautions in mind, you too can move forward with e-filing, knowing you’re protected.