Portals: Gateways to Data

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R. Sean Manning, CPA, president of Manning & Co., says his firm has been taking advantage of Thomson Tax & Accounting’s NetClient CS portals and UltraTax/1040 Portals for the last three years — a move that has enhanced the tax prep process and allows the firm to work more efficiently in a paperless environment. “When the return is complete we send the return to the client’s portal. The client then gets an email letting them know how to log in automatically. We then follow up with a second email with their password and attached to the second email are their e-file authorizations,” says Manning. “Now, the client can view their return through the portal and fax back the e-file authorizations when they approve the return.”

Manning, who is based in Littleton, Colo., says about half, or 300 individuals and about 80 monthly business clients, take advantage of the portals.


Partner Insights

The Client Portal entrance for both business and personal clients is prominently displayed on the firm’s Web site, which explains to clients that the “NetClient portal service provides our subscribing clients with an ultra-convenient and secure means to access documents and software, transfer data, and convey information. This service is a private and secure extension of our Web site, available 24/7, from anywhere you have Internet access.”

His firm, which specializes in monthly write-up, payroll services and tax prep, is likely ahead of many firms when it comes to portals but industry participants agree that such technology is the future for more than one reason.

“The percent of firms actually using portals is still small but the interest is high,” says John Higgins of Rochester, Mich.-based CPA Crossings, which offers information technology services for CPA firms.

Adds Glen Keenan, president of Braintree, Mass.-based XCM Solutions, “I think this is going to become a booming industry in the next couple of years.”

Pushing Portals

There are several factors driving the interest: a need to bolster security—especially in the face of data breach notification laws—and a desire for a more efficient workflow process.

In fact, more than 30 states have data-breach notification laws on the books. As a result, many companies are, if they have not done so already, implementing various encryption technologies. California, which took the lead with many privacy and data security issues, enacted the first data breach notification law. The law, which took effect in July 2003, requires any organization to notify California residents when their unencrypted personal information “was, or is reasonably believed to have been, acquired by an unauthorized person.” Although most states have followed the California model, there are several differences in the various state laws.

Some firms are taking it even a step further and are looking to migrate away from emailing confidential information, such as tax returns, and instead are uploading them to portals or even an FTP server.

Supporting this notion is the recently released 10th annual Ernst & Young Global Information Security Survey, which found, among other things, that privacy and data protection increased as drivers of information security. Fifty-eight percent of last year’s respondents placed privacy and data protection in the top three drivers of information security, up from 41 percent in 2006.

The survey canvassed nearly 1,300 senior executives in all major industries in more than 50 countries. The fieldwork was conducted between May and August 2007.

One such example is accounting and consulting firm WithumSmith+Brown in Red Bank, N.J.

Partner Jim Bourke not only says the firm discourages its staff from emailing confidential information to clients due to security concerns but it also launched in February 2006 its Client Portal, which serves as a depository where clients, with permission, can log on to obtain certain financial information and documents that have been stored there for viewing and downloading.

The firm uses Thomson’s GoFileRoom as its document management system, which offers a secure encrypted portal.

“It has really helped to increase productivity and we are better able to respond to clients’ needs,” says Bourke.

As of this tax season, the firm will no longer mail clients a paper copy of their return unless they request it, directing them instead to the portal.

Looking ahead, the firm plans to enhance functionality so that clients can upload documents versus just download. WithumSmith+Brown also plans to offer its portal model as a turnkey solution to clients for use within their own businesses. WithumSmith+Brown would likely host the portal for the client. Pricing options have yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, Steven Noble, CPA, CITP, principal and chief information officer of LarsonAllen of Minneapolis, is implementing a pilot of a GoFileRoom portal and beefed up the usage of its Secure FTP server through GlobalSCAPE, a provider of secure file management software.

“We are currently implementing a multi-office ‘pilot’ of GoFileRoom, with the expectation that, if successful, we will roll it out to the entire firm in 2008. As part of that project, we will also evaluate their client portal feature,” explains Noble.

And more than six months ago, the firm implemented its Secure FTP. “We now ask all client service personnel to utilize the Secure FTP site as an alternative to email, especially when transferring personal information and other sensitive data to and from clients. In fact, several clients we have already agreed to suspend the use of email for all data sharing in both directions,” says Noble.

Matthew Camden, chief information officer for Chicago-based UHY Advisors, which provides financial, tax, and business consulting services to mid-sized and larger companies, says the firm is testing internally having the portal software actually be the user’s desktop.

“What we are looking to do in 2008 is physically bring the portal to the user versus having them go to the portal each day [via their browser],” says Camden. Once it is rolled out internally and fine-tuned, the company will look to offer the capability to outside clients.

Also with regard to outside clients, if UHY Advisors builds a client portal for an engagement client during a bidding process the client can keep the portal for its use regardless of whether UHY Advisors is awarded the contract. For internal and external projects, the firm uses such solutions as GoFileRoom, CEOExpress and Stoneware software.

Boston, Mass-based Vitale, Caturano & Co. may not be as far along in the process as some other firms mentioned, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t recognize the importance of a portal.

“For us, we see portals as a way of disseminating information to our clients, allowing them to become part of the system,” says Jonathan Holmes, director of technology.

Utilizing the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server and content management tools from Interwoven, Vitale, Caturano & Co. will begin developing a portal offering after the end of its current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Meanwhile, the company has enhanced its email system for enhanced security via Secure Computing’s IronMail solution. The firm can email encrypted emails and clients also can email encrypted data to the firm. After the first of the year, the system also will be able to identify credit card and Social Security numbers and automatically encrypt them.

Safe Email?

However, not all industry professionals agree that email is not secure. In fact, Ken Garen, founder and president of Taos, N.M.-based Universal Business Computing Company believes that “email is the most secure form of communication at this time” and that data-breach notification laws are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t need to be fixed.

“Once [an email] leaves point A and is dispersed there is almost zero risk of the email getting intercepted from point A to point B,” says Garen, whose firm provides payroll, accounting and write- up software, and also offers portals. “This is opposed to portals where you upload data to a server that has to be viewed online.”

That’s not to say that Garen doesn’t believe portals can prove beneficial for firms and enhance workflow, especially if a firm has multiple offices.

Recognizing the growing importance of portals, several software vendors are taking steps to bolster their portal offerings or step into the game for the first time.

CCH, which currently offers a portal add-on for its document management solution ProSystem fx Document and a limited file-sharing capability through its Site Builder, is looking to bolster its portal offering during the summer. However, details have not yet been released.

“We do have some plans for the portal but it is too soon to talk about,” says Stuart Gill, product manager for ProSystem fx Document.

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