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Don’t toss that fax machine yet

A fax machine in use.

A fax machine in use. Many people still use fax machines as an alternative to the U.S. Postal Service. File photo.

Who uses fax machines anymore? Actually, a lot more people than you think. But people who use them because they think they’re more secure than email may have an unpleasant surprise.

Fax machines can transmit a page of information to another fax machine over, to use the technical term, plain old telephone service, or POTS.  So people typically use faxes for things that still exist on paper, such as forms for companies that haven’t yet converted them to electronic documents, or documents that existed before electronic documents.

“Lots of people still send faxes,” said Barbara Thorne at the UPS Store in Idaho Falls. Thorne said in an email message, not a fax, that the store sends “dozens” of faxes per month. “Mostly we see documents sent to businesses or government agencies. We receive faxes for customers as well. Oftentimes the customer will have to complete the form that was faxed to them (here) and then fax the completed form back to the company.”

Renee Eymann

Renee Eymann

The Idaho State Tax Commission both sends and receives faxes, said public information officer Renee Eymann.

“Each of our business units has a fax number,” she wrote in an email message. “Usually taxpayers call us to get a fax number, or the number is provided in a letter we send them as an option to contact us.”

The agency receives via fax documents such as powers of attorney, letters protesting a Notice of Deficiency Determination, requests for copies of tax returns, and  information the agency has requested. Information the agency sends by fax – after verifying the recipient’s identity and fax number – includes copies of Idaho code and rules, blank tax forms, confirmation of receipt, and levy and lien payoffs and releases, she said.

The fax, which gained popularity in the late 1980s, was quickly eclipsed in popularity by email in the early 2000s. But it’s still faster than the U.S. mail, so it still has a place in communication. The College of Southern Idaho receives a lot of documents by fax that would otherwise have arrived through the U.S. Postal Service.  “We in the Student Affairs Office have a fax machine that students use to fax their federal tax transcripts to FAFSA,” said Rosa Lopez, administrative assistant. “We also receive a lot of faxes from high schools faxing in high school transcripts.”

Chris Mayberry

Chris Mayberry

The industry that uses faxes the most? Medicine. St. Luke’s Health System, for example, averages about 417,000 faxed pages every month, said system privacy officer Christopher Mayberry. At the Saint Alphonsus Health System, fax machines are primarily used to receive information transmitted by external organizations that still rely on fax machines, said Josh Schlaich, public relations and digital security manager.

Some people use faxes for sensitive material, such as healthcare and financial, because they believe faxes are more secure than email. But that’s only sort of true, said Clark Harshbarger, special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in Boise. “Fax protocol is the same for all machines,” he said. “Which means if I’m a bad guy or a dirty husband, I connect my two wires to your two wires and connect my fax machine, and it will print out simultaneously.” While there are more secure delivery methods, such as using encryption, they are harder to use, he said. “The constant

Josh Schlaich

Josh Schlaich

tradeoff when we’re talking about security is the tradeoff between risk and reward,” he said.

Consequently, a number of organizations are encouraging their clients to retire the fax in favor of other, more secure methods of communication.

“Faxing is not the most secure way to send and receive information, and we encourage other options,” said Eymann. Those include hand delivery, the U.S. Postal Service, and couriers such as FedEx. The Tax Commission is working on a way to let taxpayers securely upload documents to its website, and hopes to have the first phase in place by the end of January, she said.

Both Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s encourage clients to use secure electronic health records systems to transmit information to limit the use of fax machines. “Any use of fax machines here continues its steady and rapid decline due to replacement by more effective forms of data transmission,” Schlaich said.

 

 

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