The holidays are the busiest time of the year — for scam artists. They lurk in the mall, in the mail and online.
“We are buying more, so we are more likely to do things that could lead to scams,” says Audri Lanford, who runs North Carolina-based scambusters.org with her husband. “It is the perfect time for scammers.”
The biggest new source of scams this season, Lanford says, is Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
“Somebody follows you, you follow them. They friend you, you friend them,” Lanford explains. “They might try to get you to buy stuff that may or may not exist to steal your credit card numbers.”
They also may be installing spyware on your computer to collect little bits of personal information that they can use to commit identity theft.
Many consumers discuss holiday plans on Facebook and other social sites. “You’ve announced to the world that you are going to be gone. That is perfect for thieves,” Lanford says. “Do not post your travel plans on Facebook and Twitter.”
To cut down on your chances of being scammed online, “never, EVER, respond to spam,” Lanford says.
The California-based Internet security firm McAfee recently released “The Twelve Scams of Christmas.” Among them: bogus offers of free iPads for consumers who purchase certain products with credit cards. Victims never receive the iPad or the other items but do get their credit card numbers stolen.
McAfee also highlighted a Facebook-based scam offering a “free $1,000 Best Buy gift card” to the first 20,000 people who sign up on the company’s fan page, which turned out to be bogus. Consumers had to provide personal information to get the gift card.
Cybercrooks also are now engaged in “smishing,” or texts that appear to be from a bank or retailer directing consumers to call a number to verify account information, according to McAfee.
Phishers — scam artists who send out phony but legitimate looking e-mails — pose during the holiday season as FedEx, UPS or a retailer asking for personal and sometimes financial information. Steer clear, says Fred Elsberry, president of the Better Business Bureau’s region covering metro Atlanta.
“None of these firms would contact you,” he says.
The BBB recommends that consumers shopping online check out businesses that aren’t household names, or shop locally on Craigslist.
“If someone asks you to wire money, you need to go to the other end of the Earth,” Elsberry says.
While more and more consumers shop online, plenty still pack the malls. The crush and rush boost the chances that an identity thief can steal your credit card or observe you enter the PIN on your debit card at the ATM.
“At least once a week, go online and look at your account and be sure there is no funny activity going on,” Elsberry says.
Charity scams are perhaps at their peak this time of year because this is when Americans do the bulk of their giving. The holiday season puts people in a mood to be generous. They also want to make their donations before year’s end for tax purposes.
“Phony charities seem to come out of the woodwork this time of the year,” says Barry Reid, who headed the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs for two decades and now is a member of the AARP Georgia Executive Council.
Reid advises consumers to take their time before giving to a charity.
“Don’t give on the spot,” he says. “Try to get the organization’s name and address so you can mail your contribution after you check them out.”
He also recommends asking for pamphlets or other material to size up if a charity is legitimate.
The BBB produces reports on more than 1,200 national charitable organizations. Charities must register with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, and most have to disclose their tax returns, which are also a good source of information.
“This is a day and time when all of us need to pull together to help those who are less fortunate. To think that some of those dollars will be siphoned off by con artists is repugnant,” Reid said.
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