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Tis the Season to Be Scammed

Don't let any of these five cons ruin your holidays


Your merry spirit, coupled with an uptick in purchasing and festive phishing emails, could increase your risk of being scammed during the holidays.
 
Con artists are getting craftier, using high-tech tricks to get your financial data, and it’s nothing to ho-ho-ho about.
 
“The holidays are used as a hook for the same scams we see the rest of the year,” says Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau. “Since people are doing more shopping at this time of year, scammers are out in full force to take advantage of that.”

(MORE: 4 Phone and Email Scams to Avoid)
 
To keep scammers from ruining your holidays, watch out for these five holiday schemes:
 
Phony Websites Promising Great Gift Deals
 
In this con, scammers send emails luring you to bogus sites by touting what look like huge bargains on the season’s hottest gifts. The sites look just like ones of popular big box retailers, but fail to deliver the promised presents. Instead, the credit card data you enter at their fake checkouts give the fraudsters just the information they nees to go on their own holiday shopping sprees.
 
“Emails promising too-good-to-be-true deals on popular gifts should raise red flags,” notes Robert Siciliano, online security expert for McAfee and author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew…Before Your Identity Was Stolen.
 
For a tipoff that a retailer’s site may be fake, hover your mouse over the link to the see the URL. If it’s not a recognizable web address, steer clear. And before purchasing a gift through an unknown retailer or site, Siciliano recommends, Google the business name and URL to check for complaints.
 
Also, remember to check your online-account statements regularly to monitor for fraudulent charges. If you spot any suspicious activity, report it to your bank or card issuer immediately.

(MORE: Debt Collectors: Top Complaint of Older Consumers)
 
Santa Letter Schemes
 
Give pause before you sign up to let Claus send a letter to your grandkids. Websites promising personalized letters from the North Pole can be clever holiday-themed frauds in disguise.
 
“Those emails are probably coming from a scammer, not an elf,” warns Hutt.
 
Like those gift site cons, these websites demand that you provide your credit card information in exchange for Santa sending a letter to a special recipient. Then, the scammers end up on the naughty list for stealing your identity and charging up your credit card.
 
There are, of course, legitimate businesses sending letters from Santa, such as SantaClausHouse.com and PackageFromSanta.com, which charge $15 to $90 for a personalized letter and goodies from the “North Pole.”
 
Instead of clicking on a Santa letter link you receive via email or one you see on a social media sites, first research these services and go straight to their sites from your browser.

(MORE: Telemarketing Calls That Are Cause for Alarm)
 
Fraudulent Gift Cards
 
Gift cards are the most popular item on holiday wish lists, according to a National Retail Federation survey; $274 billion worth of cards are expected to be sold this year. That’s exactly why the cards are a top target for con artists.
 
Here’s how this scam goes down: First, crooks take gift cards from rotating racks and cash register displays and write down the cards’ codes. Next, they check online to see that the cards have been activated by unsuspecting gift recipients. Then, the scammers use those codes to shop online, depleting the balance.
 
Before purchasing a gift card, Liz Weston, author of The 10 Commandments of Money, suggests checking to see if the security code on the back has been scratched off — a dead giveaway it’s been targeted for fraud.
 
To minimize the risk of fraud, avoid cards stocked on rotating racks in big box stores where scammers can access them. Weston also suggests keeping your receipt as proof of purchase and activation in case there is a problem.
 
Fake Data Breaches
 
With more than 679 data breaches reported so far in 2014, including ones at popular retailers like Home Depot and Target, consumers are on high alert — and scammers know it.
 
So if a retailer calls you to report a data breach and requests information, such as an account number and security code, to get things sorted out, hang up. It’s not really the store and there was no hack. “The premise is plausible enough to draw people in,” Weston admits.
 
When a legitimate data breach occurs, retailers send letters to customers and their websites and social media accounts tell you what to take.
 
If a caller claims to be working with a retailer, here’s what you should do: Phone the 800-number on the back of the store credit card or on the retailer’s site and ask to speak with the fraud department. The customer service rep might ask for your account number, address and phone number but, as Weston notes, “Since you initiated the call, it’s safe to give them the information to verify your account details.”
 
Card-Skimming Scams
 
You use ATMs and swipe credit and debit cards at retail terminals more often during the holidays, giving thieves plenty of opportunities to steal your financial data this way. Scammers install skimming devices at ATMs or put faceplates over payment terminals that read the card’s magnetic strip, providing access to your accounts and the ability to do their holiday shopping with them.
 
“You’re shopping feverishly, distracted and less cautious about your transactions,” Siciliano says. “It makes you vulnerable.”
 
To keep your data safe, keep your debit and credit cards in sight during transactions and cover the keypad when you enter your PIN at the ATM or retail terminal. “If a thief can’t see the PIN, he can’t use it,” says Siciliano.
 
Jodi Helmer writes about business and finance for Next Avenue, Entrepreneur, CBSMoneyWatch, Arrive and CreditCards.com. She’s saving her pennies to renovate a vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina. Visit her online at jodihelmer.com.

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