published Friday, December 6th, 2013

Biz Bulletin: Avoiding holiday scammers by checking out deals

By Jim Winsett

Q. I have seen an uptick of spam reaching my inbox from phony charities to phantom packages that want to get delivered. Does the BBB have information about popular holiday scams and some tips to not fall for one?

A. Looking forward to the holidays? So are the scammers. Every year, thousands of consumers fall victim to the holiday deals that seem too good to be true. It is important to know what red flags to look for, and be on guard for this season’s holiday scams. This holiday season, BBB urges consumers to take the following tips into consideration to keep your holiday season bright and scam free:

• Always research charities with BBB before you give to see if the charity meets BBB’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability at www.bbb.org/charity. The holidays are a time of giving, and that creates an opportunity for scammers to solicit donations to line their own pockets. Beware of solicitations from charities that do not necessarily deliver on their promises or are ill-equipped to carry through on their plans. Resist demands for on-the-spot donations. And be sure to double check the correct name of the charity, since scammers like to use look-alike names to try to fool you.

• Always check a business’s BBB Business Review, at www.bbb.org, before making a purchase in the store or online. Keep in mind, it is easy to mimic a real website. Be sure to get the company’s contact information (besides just an email) and independently verify that information too. Some red flags to watch for: the website has http, instead of the more secure https, no contact information, and asks for payment by wire or money card. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for counterfeit gifts. Especially when shopping online, some websites offer electronics or luxury goods at prices that are too good to be true, which raises a red flag. Every holiday season, BBB hears from holiday shoppers who paid for a “great deal” online, but received little or nothing in return.

• If you shop Craigslist or other free bulletin board sites, look for local sellers and conduct transactions in person. Bring a friend if you are uncomfortable meeting the seller alone, and always meet at a place where there are others around. Never wire money as payment. If you are shopping on auctions like eBay, look at seller ratings and read their reviews. Do not buy if the deal sounds too good to be true. Watch out for stolen gift cards. Your best option is to buy gift cards only from reputable dealers, not online or from individuals. It is easy for a scammer to sell you the card, then pull off the funds before you can even give the gift. Also be weary of buying a pet online. Many fraudsters will try selling pets online or claim they are giving them away—but you need to wire an “adoption/relocation fee” first. The reality is you may get a puppy mill pooch with problems, or you may get nothing at all because it was a scam. Better yet, choose to adopt one of the many wonderful pets looking for a home at your local animal shelter.

• Do not let yourself get bogged down in purchases or lose track of your wallet. While you are struggling with bags of presents, identity thieves may see an opportunity to steal your wallet or look over your shoulder to copy your debit or credit card numbers. Know where your credit and debit cards are at all times and cover the keypad when entering your PIN while purchasing items or getting money from an ATM. Make sure you put your card back in your wallet after each purchase.

• Do not click on any links or open any attachments to emails or texts until you have confirmed that they are not malicious. Viruses and malware often travel in e-mail attachments or links. Around the holidays, beware of e-cards and messages pretending to be from companies like UPS or FedEx with links to package tracking information. Email addresses that do not match up, typos and grammatical mistakes are common red flags of a malicious phishing email or text. Make sure you have current antivirus software and that all security patches have been installed on the computer and phone. As a general rule, do not click on an e-mail from someone you do not know or a name you do not recognize. Also realize that many phishing texts around this year may say you have won a gift card or money from a popular retailer. Don’t fall for it!

A few other holiday scams to watch out for include:

* Stranded grandkids: It’s the classic “grandparent scam.” If your grandchild, other relative or friend calls or e-mails to say they were robbed or hurt overseas, check before wiring money.

* Santa scammers: What could be more jolly than a letter from Santa addressed directly to your child? Make sure the site is real and not gathering your data for identity theft purposes.

* Travel scams: With busy holiday travel, bargains may be tempting. Be cautious when booking through online ads, never wire money to someone you do not know, and ask for references.

* Romance scams: Everyone wants a special someone under the mistletoe, so holidays are prime time for scams. Be careful with an online sweetheart who gets cozy too fast or asks for money.

* Fake coupons: Be cautious when downloading coupons. Always make sure you are at a retailer’s real website. Be especially careful with coupon sites that ask for personal information.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga

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