Wednesday, December 11, 2013

BEWARE: Nasty Holiday Scams

Holiday shopping scams

We’re all trying to spend less on our holiday gifts, and our eagerness to save a buck is at the root of many of these scams. Others are feeding off a particular item or brand’s popularity and use some high-tech sleight of hand to get you to make your purchase in the wrong place.
  • Fake coupons for sale. Before we get to scam websites, let’s start with scam deals. Any good bargain shopper knows that coupons and coupon codes may be needed to get the best prices. At the same time, savvy shoppers should also know never to pay for one of those coupons or codes. Not only is selling a coupon against most manufacturer terms of use, but you might also find yourself embarrassed if you go on national TV using counterfeit coupons.
  • Cheap luxury goods. A $50 Rolex should send the alarms in your head into overdrive. Some cons set up bogus websites for popular holiday gifts. These items come up in search results, and the cheap price lures shoppers in. Then, they either take your money and run or take your money and send you a cheap knockoff not worth the money you spent.
  • EBay and Craigslist scams. Other thieves can’t be bothered to set up their own website, so they use eBay or Craigslist instead. Different venue, but you’ll find the same racket as above. Either they’ll never send you the item or send you a cheap piece of junk. Be sure to check feedback before buying on eBay and never have something shipped from a seller on Craigslist. Always meet in person in a public place and take along a friend for good measure.
  • Counterfeit websites. Now we come to the big guns. These are the scam artists who are taking it to a whole new level by completely copying the websites of popular brands. Although these sites look impressive, there’s typically something off about them – usually typos, or grammar that sounds like a British nanny wrote the Web copy (“Kindly enter your credit card information”). If you aren’t sure about a website’s legitimacy, call the toll-free number listed. Typically, scammers use the company’s actual number. The customer service rep can then either verify whether you’re on the real website or take your order over the phone.

Gift card scams

According to the National Retail Federation, 80 percent of shoppers will be buying gift cards this holiday season. What’s more, they’ll spend an average of more than $160 on them. Wouldn’t thieves just love to get in on that action?
Oh, rest assured, they do, using these common gift card scams.
  • Bogus discount gift cards. There are legitimate websites selling discounted gift cards – Gift Card Granny and Cardpool are two – but there are plenty of fake sites out there selling worthless cards. To help keep you from getting taken for a ride, we have a whole article dedicated to the ins and outs of discounted gift cards.
  • “Used” gift cards in the store. A lot of stores make it easy for you to buy gift cards. They have giant racks containing dozens of cards in their center aisle or near the registers. Unfortunately, they are also making it easy for thieves to steal from you. Most cards today have a scratch-off area on the back that contains a PIN or other number needed to redeem the card. Thieves scratch it off, write down the number and then call the toll-free number regularly while waiting for the card to be purchased and activated. Once it is, they drain the card’s balance. Protect yourself by double-checking the back of the card for any signs of tampering before buying.

Package scams

When it comes to scams involving packages, there are two common types: those involving physical theft and those involving identity theft.
  • Package delivery scams. These are those emails that may already be filling your inbox. A package is on its way. Hooray! Now, click this link, fill in all your personal information and we’ll arrange for its delivery. Except there’s no package, and the website is simply collecting your personal data. A variation of this scam involves a “missed package” note left on your door. You’re supposed to call a number to make arrangement for its delivery, but again, there’s no package and they’re fishing for information. To protect yourself, call the company’s main toll-free number found on its website to confirm the package. If the notice looks official and you call, hang up right away if the person on the other end starts asking personal questions. Remember, they don’t need your credit card number, birthday or Social Security number to deliver a package.
  • Stolen packages. The second scam is a little harder to prevent. The news is full of reports of thieves stealing packages right off people’s porches. In some cases, the criminals actually follow delivery trucks and scoop up goods all along their route. The best defense is to require a signature for package delivery whenever possible.
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Online and social media scams

With Internet usage almost universal in the United States, the online world has become a fertile breeding ground for scams of all sorts. And just in time for the holidays, many will have a seasonal flair.
  • Facebook video scams. Cute and outrageous videos are all over our news feeds, but not all of them are what they seem. You click “play” to see the video but are actually hitting a hidden “like” button, which then gives the video creator access to information from your Facebook account. Avoid this scam by resisting the urge to click on any video seemingly out of character for your friend to be sharing – for example, the video of the half naked woman that your grandma supposedly liked.
  • Social media giveaways. Likewise, you need to be careful about giveaways. I hate to break it to you, but you probably haven’t been selected to win a $500 Best Buy gift card. However, you may have been selected to have your data mined by a scam artist.
  • E-cards with a side of malware. Holiday e-cards aren’t so funny when they conceal malicious software. If you get a card from a name you don’t recognize, the only clicking you should be doing is on the delete button.
  • Malicious apps. E-cards aren’t the only things bearing bad tidings for the holiday season. Think twice about downloading random apps onto your phone or computer for free screensavers or songs. Many carry some not so nice programming along with them. When in doubt, check reviews from the Google Play Store, iTunes or CNET first.
  • Surveys offering holiday cash. Who doesn’t want a little extra cash for their holiday spending? While there are surveys that pay cash, they typically offer somewhere in the range of $1 to $3 for a survey. If someone is offering you $100 for a five-minute survey, it has scam written all over it.

Old-fashioned scams

These are some oldies but goodies – well, at least good for the thieves. Scammers often target seniors, so make sure Mom and Dad are aware of these too.
  • Stranded families and friends. Here’s how this goes: Grandma gets a call at night from her granddaughter, who has (take your pick) been in a car accident, been robbed or needs some cash for Christmas presents. Grandma might be slightly confused by the call but she of course wants to help, so she agrees to wire money or hands over her credit card number. The high-tech version of this old-fashioned scam involves desperate emails from your friends who were mugged in London and lost their money and passport. That might sound convincing if you have jet-setting friends, but for the rest of us, not so much.
  • Pickpockets. Some thieves don’t have time to make up elaborate stories or set up websites. They would rather head to the mall and simply take your money. Pickpockets might work alone or in tandem with someone else who causes a distraction. Your best defense is to take only the cards you need when shopping and keep your wallet in an inside pocket. Ladies, use a purse that can be zipped shut, and crossbody style is always more secure than wearing your purse on your shoulder.
  • Door-to-door “salesmen” casing houses. We don’t see too many door-to-door salespeople anymore and that alone should make anyone coming to your door to hawk wares suspicious. In the case of cons, they really aren’t selling anything anyway. Instead, they’re checking out whether you have a security system or a dog and want to get a peek at your house layout. Sometimes these thieves are pretending to pass out prizes. Either way, they find excuses to get inside and look around. The solution? Never let someone going door-to-door into your house.
  • Fake charities. Using names that sound like the real deal, thieves call you up and tug at your heartstrings until you fork over your credit card number. I won’t go into too much detail on this one because we have an entire article dedicated to helping you find a legitimate charity for your contributions.

All the rest

Finally, we round out our list of holiday scams with a couple of odds and ends.
  • Fake refunds. Don’t you love when money magically appears in your mailbox? Scam artists are hoping you’ll be so excited to receive a rebate for the whatchamacallit you bought that you won’t notice how odd it is they want you to cash the check and forward a portion on to someone else. Of course, by the time the “refund” check bounces, they will be long gone with the money you sent to them.
  • Text phishing. We’re all getting sophisticated enough to recognize email phishing scams – you know, those messages saying there’s a problem with your bank account and you need to log in immediately. Since we aren’t falling for the emails so much anymore, scammers have moved on to texting. You get an account alert and are directed to click a link to log in. The only thing is, you are going to a dummy website instead. If you are concerned about the status of your account, it’s better to open your browser and type your bank’s website in rather than clicking the link.
  • Fake holiday jobs. Last but not least, some cons take advantage of job seekers. They promise seasonal work, but first you must pay an application fee or a training fee or some other bogus fee. They’re all lies. A real job pays you, not the other way around.
Are you paranoid yet? I wouldn’t blame you if you are. However, keep in mind that steering clear of scams has a lot to do with common sense and listening to that little voice in your head that says something’s not quite right.
As a final stopgap, do your shopping with a credit card. Most offer fabulous fraud protection features that make it easy to get your money back should you get taken in by a swindler.


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