Common sense can help keep holiday scammers at bay

The OlympianDecember 4, 2013 

Cyber Monday

FILE - in this Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, file photo. packages are ready to ship move along a conveyor belt at the Amazon.com 1.2 million square foot fulfillment center, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

ROSS D. FRANKLIN — AP

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, especially for those who shied away from Black Friday.

In fact, some would-be Santas are so averse to crowds, they gravitate to the time-saving, convenient option of online purchases.

But with that convenience comes a greater threat of identity theft and other scams that can take the joy out of the shopping experience.

A preholiday survey by the National Retail Federation showed that about 25 percent of all consumers plan to do anywhere from 26 percent to 50 percent of their holiday shopping online. That represents a lot of potential victims for scammers who hide behind the spirit of Christmas giving to do their dirty work.

“Holidays, like disasters, are a common time for scams to increase,” noted Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Here’s a few things consumers can do to keep from getting bilked.

First of all, use a credit card instead of a debit card to conduct online transactions. Credit cards have more built-in protection than debit cards. For instance, someone who falls victim to credit card theft won’t lose money from their account. By comparison a debit card in the wrong hands can be used to directly withdraw funds from the victim’s account.

It also is important to do a little homework before shopping online. Ensure that the online purchase sites have addresses that start with “https” and be suspicious of merchants who link you, the consumer, to other sites via email. Don’t forget to double check merchandise return policies. And check the shipping costs for the purchase. Excess shipping fees can take the form of a scam.

It is the season for charity scams as well. Phony charities often create websites that have names and addresses that closely represent legitimate charities, which is another good reason to double check before writing a check. A couple online sources to verify a charity include GuideStar USA Inc. (guidestar.com) and CharityWatch (charitywatch,org).

Gift cards are growing in popularity. More than 80 percent of consumers surveyed by the National Retail Federation reported that they plan to give gift cards this holiday season. They’re not bullet-proof either. Scammers can copy a gift card’s code, learn the card’s value when it is purchased, then take advantage online or in stores. One way to protect a gift card purchase is to only buy those that require a PIN to activate. It also is a good idea to give the gift card purchase receipt to the card recipient as proof of its value.

It’s truly unfortunate that consumers have to be so vigilant with their purchases. Too much paranoia can take the fun out of giving gifts. That said, a little homework and common sense can help keep the holiday season merry and bright.

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