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Column: This holiday scam is heavy on naughty, totally lacking in fun

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It is the best time of the year. But it is also the most dangerous for consumers.

From gift card rackets to online fraud, consumers are constantly attacked amid what some analysts call the first in the country trillion dollar holiday season.

The Ministry of Homeland Security has encouraged shoppers "Being aware of potential holiday scams and malicious cyber campaigns, especially when browsing or shopping online."

It specifically stated "malicious links or attachments infected with malware" and "fake emails requesting support for fraudulent charities or goals."

Today we will look at some of the more prominent threats that exist and what you can do to protect yourself.

Gift cards

Gift cards are at the top of the wish list of many people, with the National retail federation 59% of those surveyed hope to find at least one in their stockings.

Mercator Advisory Group, a consulting firm for the payment industry, honey nearly $ 100 billion was loaded on gift vouchers last year.

Fraudsters are well aware of how popular these things are, so they do everything they can to get involved in part of the promotion.

"Gift cards are safe, secure, and in-demand gift options," said Erin Wood, president of the Retail Gift Card Assn. "Unfortunately, like all payment instruments, criminals have found ways to abuse gift cards."

One of the most common rackets is for potential thieves in stores to peel back the stickers with pin codes for gift vouchers. They also note the card number. Then they go online after the card is activated and they try to make a purchase with the remaining balance.

Some scammers use the brute force method and use software programs to try out every possible combination of card number and pin code on a store's website. If they are lucky in a working combination, they can use the card themselves or sell the info online.

Always check that the packaging of the card has not been tampered with and that the PIN sticker is in place. Do not remove the sticker or scratch the pin code until you are ready to use the card.

Tickets purchased online are not as easy as buying tickets in stores. Cards that are behind the cashier's counter are also safer than cards that are not kept in a rack.

Another thought: if you receive a gift voucher, use it. It is estimated that more than $ 45 billion in unused gift card balances have been accumulated over the past 15 years, which is simply free money for stores.

If you do not use up all of you, consider selling the remaining card balances on sites such as Cardpool and Card Cash.

phishing

Email inboxes are flooded with messages and freebies that seem to come from prominent retailers. Some are undoubtedly legitimate. But in many cases, that super cool offer is just a list to get you to hand over personal information or download a malicious program.

I receive such emails apparently several times a week. They are fake. Costco recently announced that what looks like a Facebook link to a free $ 75 coupon is actually a hoax.

"Costco does NOT give away $ 75 coupons," the company warned. "Although we love our fans and our members, this offer is a SCAM and is in no way affiliated with Costco."

Make it part of your digital hygiene to never click on links from sources that you do not recognize.

If you have doubts, move your cursor over the link and see what comes next. If it's a simple URL, especially for a recognizable brand, it's probably good. If it is a long series of gobbledygook, go backwards.

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Clearinghouse for privacy rights in San Diego, warned of the growing threat of so-called dark patterns.

"These are websites that try to mislead you into upgrades, additional purchases, or more expensive shipping options by collapsing into these more expensive options by default in subtle ways that may not be immediately apparent," he said.

Watch out for pre-checked check boxes that bind you to things you may not want, such as permission to share your personal information with marketers.

Sneaky emails

You may receive an email from a reputable online payment service such as PayPal confirming a recent purchase. However, you cannot remember that you made such a purchase.

That is what scammers count on.

The e-mail contains a link to contest or cancel the suspicious order. Clicking on this will take you to a fake site that asks for personal information, such as your name, address and credit card number.

Always contact retailers directly. If the e-mail confirms an order from, for example, Victoria & # 39; s Secret that you do not recognize, do not click on the link. Call Victoria & # 39; s Secret.

Along the same path, beware of emails that claim to have come from a shipping company such as FedEx or UPS to alert you that your package has been delayed. These emails may also contain links that would rob you of personal information or download a virus to your computer.

Run the cursor test before you click on a link. If you have the least doubt, call the sender with any questions.

Fake charities

This is a particularly disgusting racket because it is the desire of people to do well in the giving season.

It is now a sad reality that after every tragedy – a fire, an earthquake, a shooting – fake charities immediately pop up to use people's eagerness to help others.

"Fraudsters – opportunists that they are – rely on generous consumers to use their hearts, not their heads, when they donate to charity or in a holiday spirit," said Lauren Hall, a consumer action policy advocate.

Protect yourself by preventing you from being asked by a foundation or charity that you do not recognize. Or make it a habit to visit such an entity on charity rating sites such as Charity Navigator and CharityWatch.

Make no mistake, it is very good to help others in need. Donating to charities is very good. Be careful.

Family in need

Perhaps the dirtiest of scams, this is where a call comes from someone claiming to be in a position of authority – a police officer, an FBI agent – to inform you that a loved one is in trouble.

"This is a scam of opportunities and the holiday season is the perfect opportunity to play on the emotions of victims," ​​warned the attorney general of South Dakota, along with other national officials, at this time last year.

Also known as the grandparent scam because it is often aimed at seniors, victims are instructed to send money (or gift card numbers) to a distant location to get their relatives out of prison.

"Fraudsters know how to press all buttons," said John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League. "They may swear to the grandparent, claim that the money is needed right away, and use personal information collected through social media to make their pitches sound convincing."

This is an extensive and aggressive scam. I wrote last year about a Central Coast resident who ran for 20 hours throughout the South Country and robbed thousands of dollars by fraudsters claiming that his daughter had been kidnapped.

If you receive such a call, the FBI says, hang up.

Oh, and happy holidays.

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