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Scam Alert: Holiday con men will be out in numbers to ply their schemes

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A fool and his money are soon parted, but never so often as during the Holiday Season. For con men the world over, the Holidays offer a wonderful environment for doing what they do best – scamming their victims out of their hard-earned cash with their favorite tricks of the trade. And why is this? Consumers are out in numbers with pockets full of cash, whether in traditional brick-and-mortar stores or on the Internet. These happy shoppers tend to be in unfamiliar surroundings, totally unaware of what danger lurks about them. While listening to carols of hope and joy, they also tend to trust any and all strangers in their midst, as well. In other words, a “perfect storm” for fraud exists.

Law enforcement officials try to help by sending out alerts and warnings through their respective distribution channels. Most of these warnings will unavoidably fall on deaf ears, since consumers are focused elsewhere. Here is the FBI’s latest missive: “Never provide your personal information to an unknown party or un-trusted website. If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. You may end up paying for an item, giving away personal information and credit card details, and then receive nothing in return, along with your identity being compromised.” These warnings also will typically list the most prevalent scams to avoid.

What are the most typical scams to avoid? Unfortunately, there are dozens of them. For the crooks, it is like catching fish in a barrel. There are so many marks on the street and on the web that, if one scam does not work, then there is always a “Plan B” or “Plan C” that will surely do the trick. Crooks are resourceful, too, and they do plan ahead for this time of year, just like the retail industry and payment card associations and networks do. And for good reason — More than half of their annual volume passes through their systems during the period from late November through early January. Do not forget the after sales and return phase, too. Con men do cast their nets far and wide.

Many of today’s modern scams are online. According to the FBI, “Complaints involving scams on social media have quadrupled over the last five years.” Identity theft is the intent, with a variety of schemes designed to “phish” for your personal and credit card information. Cyber-Christmas thieves are coming to town, so beware, especially on Cyber Monday. Any approach that is unsolicited, either through emails, direct mail, or phone, has a high potential for being fraudulent.

What are the dozen most prevalent holiday scams out there?

In keeping with the twelve days of Christmas theme, we have assembled a “dirty dozen” of the most used con games that you might encounter over the weeks to come. No one is immune to these schemes. They include the entire gambit of travel offers, prepaid gift cards, delivery company queries, website clones, greeting cards, mobile apps, charity requests, and more. The list could be endless. While you hear songs of turtledoves and French hens, hopefully, these twelve tips will prevent your becoming a pigeon. If you trip upon a new one, then the FBI would like to hear about it on their IC3.org website.

1)     Offers too good to be true: Everyone loves a bargain, especially during the holidays and even more so if it is for a hard-to-find item or toy. Many frauds involve counterfeits of these items or auction sites where the seller pleads that he is in need or must go on overseas duty, necessitating a quick advance of funds. If funds must be wired, then it is most likely a scam. Call the person, rather than accepting emails as valid correspondence;

2)     Clone websites: Crooks have web designers, too, and many create fake websites that totally resemble the real thing (www.tiffanyco.mn is not www.tiffany.com). They will then use emails, postcards, or telemarketing robo-calls to draw you to their sites for great offers or deals that you cannot refuse. The ruse is set to gather your personal ID and payment information. Do not access the link provided on an email, since it will download malware that will report back your keystrokes to the crooks for later use;

3)     Great travel deals: The holidays are all about travel, too. The favored scam here is to offer discount travel memberships that entitle you to a lifetime of savings. These fraudsters draw you in with free prizes and then put on the hard sell for discount packages for thousands of dollars. When you finally get the discount package book, you will find that the prices are above what you could buy on your own. Phone numbers and addresses for the vendor no longer exist. The crook has run for the hills with your loot;

4)     Free holiday vacation trips: This charade is appealing because many have learned that a vacation over the holidays can be fun. The vendor offering the deal is often overseas and requests your card info to pay minor processing fees. They may try to sell you hotel upgrades or book your flights for inflated airfares, as well, but nothing resembles anything that is “free”. The aggressive crook will ask for payment to be wire transferred overseas. If you comply, say goodbye to your money in the language of your choice;

5)     Delivery company queries: Shipping companies, like FedEx and UPS, are very busy this time of year. Packages can go astray, and crooks use this fact to approach you about an undelivered package. Beware the postcard that instructs you to call a special number or the email that gives you a handy link to connect with a customer service person. The con men are phishing for ID info again, to be used at a later date. Call FedEx or UPS direct;

6)     Prepaid gift cards: Gift cards have become the rage as an easy gift to buy off unattended rack stands. Unbeknownst to you, crooks have scanned the numbers and peeled off the seals over the secret codes on the back of the cards. They will call the automated balance checking system to find out when the card has been activated and for how much, then quickly drain the value;

7)     Mobile apps and games: Downloading untested apps or games is the quickest way to get malware on your device. This software will give con men login and password data to your financial accounts, if and when you access them online. These “Trojan Horses” are difficult to detect and wreak havoc later on;

8)     Greeting card scams: Who does not like to receive an electronic greeting card over the holidays? In this fraud, the crook has used someone else’s email address to send you a link to his malware download site. Are you beginning to see the method to their madness?

9)     Holiday event tickets: Holiday event packages are also big around the holidays. From college football bowl games to the Super Bowl or to your favorite play on Broadway, crooks will produce counterfeit tickets and sell them at unbelievable prices. If you do see the game, it will be from your hotel room;

10)  Offers after auction bids: Another scam that originates on auction sites occurs after you have supposedly been outbid by another party. These offers tend to direct you offsite to acquire the same item for a better price. If you are duped into paying anything, you might get a cheap counterfeit, if you are lucky;

11)  Calls of distress: Who does not want to help a family member or friend stranded overseas during the holidays? This ruse may involve a garbled phone message, followed by an email of distress. A wallet and cell phone have been stolen. Please wire thousands of dollars to pay hotel and airfare home. Believe it or not, many have fallen for this shady scheme;

12)  Charity donations: Of all the cons, this one is, perhaps, the most insidious. The holidays are also a time for giving to our favorite causes and charities. Crooks have created fraudulent charities or sites to dupe you. Do not respond to emails or phone solicitations without first checking out the organization. The www.charitynavigator.orgsite is one place to go to check on legitimacy.

Additional tips for avoiding cyber fraud

The FBI also provides these additional tips for blocking online criminals:

  • Check your credit card statement routinely.
  • Protect your credit card numbers from “wandering eyes”.
  • Do not respond to unsolicited (spam) e-mail.
  • Do not click on links contained within an unsolicited e-mail.
  • Be cautious of e-mail claiming to contain pictures in attached files, as the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders. Scan the attachments for viruses if possible.
  • Avoid filling out forms contained in e-mail messages that ask for personal information.
  • Always compare the link in the e-mail to the link you are actually directed to and determine if they actually match and lead you to a legitimate site.
  • Log on directly to the official website for the business identified in the e-mail, instead of “linking” to it from an unsolicited e-mail. If the e-mail appears to be from your bank, credit card issuer, or other company you deal with frequently, your statements or official correspondence from the business will provide the proper contact information.
  • If you are requested to act quickly or there is an emergency, it may be a scam. Fraudsters create a sense of urgency to get you to act quickly.
  • Verify any requests for personal information from any business or financial institution by contacting them using the main contact information on their official website.
  • Remember if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Concluding Remarks

As one well-meaning pundit put it, “‘Tis the season for shopping, salutations and various seasonal scams as perennial as poinsettias.” The criminal element in our society completed their preparations for the Holiday Season months ago. They are now out in force and conducting their implementation phase, both online and at your favorite mall or retail store. As you shop, be ever mindful of the “red flags” that have been listed here. Yes, many solicitations may be legitimate, but many may also be deceptive attempts to spoil your holidays. Be skeptical, and use this advice to keep the Grinch away from your door and from any device that you may use to access the Internet. Happy Holidays!