REGION – It’s holiday season – decorations are going up, menorahs are ready to be lit, mistletoe is dangling, and the scammers are dancing around the tree. As we enter this joyous season, we need to double our attention to criminal fraud. Let’s start with a few basic rules:
1. Slow down. Marketing in America uses urgency to trigger responses, and scammers do the same thing. Don’t make decisions when you are rushed, as that is when mistakes happen.
2. If it’s too good to be true… Yes, there are some excellent buying opportunities, but always keep in mind that when something is offered free or at a “deep discount” there could be fraud involved. Businesses do not survive unless they can make a profit on sales so double check the offer using independent sources and be careful shopping online. Criminals are very good at impersonation using technology to deceive you into believing something is legitimate when it is not.
3. Don’t allow emotion to be the primary motivation. When people get emotional with joy, fear, sadness, or anxiety, they often lose their sense of logic and reason. This creates vulnerability to targeted appeals, both legitimate and criminal. Somber music, alarming photography, and well-chosen words spoken in a deliberate fashion are powerful influencers.
Now that you are ready to venture out or online for your holiday activities, be aware of the following traps. Bogus holiday jobs are promoted primarily by email and social media. Do some background work with independent verification of the job before responding to any offers. Fraudulent offers are often phishing expeditions to collect, use, and sell your personal information. Legitimate job offers do not ask you to pay a fee or assessment.
Package delivery scams are growing in number. These are usually efforts to either extract personal information or collect payment for “unanticipated” fees associated with the delivery. Combined with outright package theft from doorsteps, the expectation is that nearly 25 million customers will be impacted this year. You can nearly eliminate the risks by having the packages held at pickup locations that are used by major shipping companies. In the absence of a location, schedule the delivery for a convenient time.
Carefully examine email offers before opening any links and avoid downloading any software. Bogus emails can lure you into being less vigilant. One clear sign that things are not as they appear can be an email address that does not match the promoted source of the email. For example, a message congratulating you on being awarded a $50 gift card from a nationally recognizable business with a sender’s address of Gmail, Hotmail, or something else other than the name of the company offering the gift card. These are generally presented as surveys but are designed to collect your personal information. Avoid them – often you’ll end up with a self-renewing magazine subscription, not the gift card.
Conduct a background check when doing online shopping from companies that are new to you. Legitimacy can be checked through your state attorney general’s office or the Better Business Bureau. Don’t place an order providing any credit card information unless you are absolutely certain of the status of the company and its payment procedure is secure.
Verify before you donate! On one hand there are fake charities that use this season of giving as an opportunity to deceive, but there are also legitimate money raising efforts that may not be what they appear to be. Often charities use professional fundraisers in their efforts who keep the majority of what is collected. Evaluate your giving by researching charity status using free services such as CharityNavigator.org, CharityWatch.org, Give.org, and GuideStar.org.
Also note: Panic buying and shortages have reappeared. Beware of price gouging and the marketing of fake Clorox and Lysol products online. Report scams and fraud to www.ftc.gov or your state consumer protection office.
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.