Elliott Greenblott | Fraud watch: Last-minute tips to avoid holiday scams

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Rush hour! Less than 20 shopping days until Christmas (even fewer if you are lighting a menorah on Dec. 12th). I understand if you don't have time to read this final installment of holiday fraud tips, but take a minute to scan the following points:

1. If the holiday shopping presents you with an opportunity that is "too good to be true," it most likely is! Don't get trapped.

2. Opt for safety and caution rather than expedience when shopping — particularly when you are shopping on-line. Multi-tasking while shopping online can result in falling victim to numerous scams.

3. Con artists and scammers count on you being distracted, stressed and having a heightened level of anxiety. Don't oblige them.

Here is my concluding list of some of the more prevalent scams this season:

1. Beware of e-cards (electronic greeting cards sent via email) from people you do not know. Criminals embed these with malware and Trojan horses that corrupt files and steal information. If you don't know the sender based on name or email address, relegate the message to your junk folder and delete.

2. When shopping for gift cards, forgo the racks of cards in stores. Convenience, yes. But criminals have been known to copy card numbers and activation codes or pins. These "doctored" cards are returned to the sales racks and the scammer monitors the cards on-line, waiting for activation. Once activated, cards can be quickly emptied (certainly before the recipient of the card can use it. Purchase your gift cards from the store clerk. Also, most gift cards sold by companies such as Mastercard and Visa carry high activation fees regardless of the card value.

3. Travel deals to Southern or Island destinations always look great for those of us facing a long, cold winter. Always be skeptical of deals that require up-front payments and be sure of the legitimacy of those with whom you are dealing.

4. Be wary of "customer reviews" posted online. Most of these cannot be verified and unscrupulous businesses often manipulate reviews by posting false evaluations that promote their products or disparage the products of competitors. Use reviews by independent testing groups or reputable consumer advocates. Good sources of reviews and ratings for goods and services can be found with the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, Consumers Union, and state agencies such as the office of the Attorney General's consumer assistance program.

5. It's that time of the year that good will and generosity play a large role for many, and you may have noticed an increase in the number of non-profits and charities seeking donations. As I have mentioned previously, con artists are aware of the sentiments and use their skills in making emotional pleas for donations to fraudulent causes. Consider needs you can address that benefit those in your community. When looking to give outside the community, you can check out potential recipients on three web sites: charitynavigator.org, charitywatch.org, and give.org. These services rate most charities according to the use of donations and the transparency of their financial records. (Please note that some perfectly legitimate organizations may not be good candidates for your generosity. I was called by a regional law enforcement fund raiser requesting a donation. I ended the call abruptly when upon being asked, the caller informed me that 84 percent of the donations were used to pay the fundraisers!

6. Beware of skimmers — devices attached to ATMs and sometimes gasoline pumps. Often very difficult to identify, they usually involve a card reader along with a keypad touch film or miniature camera. The devices allow criminals to access bank accounts that are access by ATM and debit cards.

The safest approach is to use machines located in banks with which you are familiar.

In the case of gas pumps, look for security tape on lock mechanism or doors and use the pumps that are closest to or face the store entrance. In the past three "episodes," I reviewed 10-12 seasonal scams that could put a chill on your celebrations. As always, the best protection is using common sense and avoid making hasty decisions.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org and consider joining the Fraud Watch program as a

volunteer.



Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator who serves as the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network Coordinator.

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