Avoid These 5 Holiday Scams

slide’Tis the season to be careful. As you make your lists and check them twice, don’t forget to keep your eyes open for scammers who try to take your goodwill — and leave you with nothing to show for it.

Here are some of the top online scams to beware of this holiday season.

Cheating Charities
Families in your neighborhood are going hungry. Children in far-away countries are sick and need your help. You can give generously this holiday season, but be sure that you’re donating to a legitimate charity, not a scammer. Check out any online charity solicitation very closely. Some, unfortunately, are fraudulent.

Stay safe:

  • Run the charity through the databases at Charity Navigator (CharityNavigator.org) or the Better Business Bureau (BBB.org/US/Charity) to see whether it’s legitimate.
  • Never give your credit card or bank account information to someone who contacted you, whether by phone, by email or even in person.
  • Resist the urge to donate to unfamiliar charities if you don’t have time to check them out thoroughly.
  • An email pitch from a recognized organization might be legitimate, but to be safe, don’t click that link. Instead, use a search engine to find the site, and make your payment that way.

Bogus Bargains
Every year, there’s that one item you absolutely need to get, or else you risk ruining Christmas forever. Savvy shopper that you are, you want to make sure you don’t overpay. And then you find it online for a great price! Before you click that “Buy” button, stop and think: Why would anyone sell this hot-ticket item at a discount?

Stay safe:

  • Don’t order from a site you’ve never heard of. Trust the big names: Amazon, eBay, and other established retailers with policies in place to protect you.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No one is going to sell you this year’s equivalent to the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo for less than retail price. In fact, if an item is in high demand, they’ll likely sell it for more than retail. So either cough up the cash or wait until after the holiday rush is over and sales ease back to normal.
  • Use a one-time credit card number with a limit just above your purchase price (ask your bank or credit card provider for information) if you decide to order from a lesser-known reseller.

Happy Holidays?
Grandma Jane sent you a holiday e-card? Just click to view it … and infect your computer with spyware or worse. E-card scams prey on your sense of social niceties: You get a card, you open it. But don’t let politeness cut you off from your computer.

Stay safe:

  • If you receive a card from a person you barely know, or if the email notification is full of grammar and spelling errors, delete it.
  • Trust your gut. If you suspect the link is fraudulent, don’t click it. Just trash it. You can always send an email to the supposed sender asking if the card is legit.
  • Never download software in order to view a card.

Freebie Fraud
Who doesn’t want a free iPad? It’s incredibly tempting to click on these offers. Best-case scenario, though, is that you’ll discover you only have to buy $2,000 of worthless products to get your $500 iPad. Worst case? You’ll provide your credit card number, get nothing in return, and find out that thieves have run up thousands in fraudulent charges in the meantime.

You might also come across free e-book offers online. Some of these are legitimate; for example, Amazon makes plenty of free Kindle books available daily. But many free e-books are filled with spam links and malware designed to catch your credit card information.

Stay safe:

  • Accept the cold, hard truth that no one — not Bill Gates, not Apple, not anyone — is going to give you a high-value item for free. Delete all offers immediately.
  • Stick with e-book sellers and authors you already know, advises the Better Business Bureau (BBB). If an e-book piques your interest but the author seems unfamiliar, do a quick search and see what comes up.
  • Never click on links inside an e-book unless you purchased it from a site you know and trust, says the BBB. And you’re always better off typing the link into your browser rather than clicking directly from the book.

Working the System
If you could use a little extra cash for the holidays, you’re not alone — and scammers know it. They offer you the chance to earn thousands of dollars per week just by using your computer. Once again, set your excitement aside and let common sense prevail.

Stay safe:

  • Never pay anyone in order to work. A job should pay you, not the other way around.
  • Don’t provide your credit card or other personal information for a “background check” for work you found online.
  • Do your own background check: Look up the company, ask questions and push for answers. A legitimate company won’t have any problem providing plenty of information.
  • With these tips in mind, may your holidays be merry and scam-free.

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Photo: Corbis Images

 Abbi Perets has been writing about technology, parenting, health care, kitchen gadgets and other topics for the last 15 years. Her work has been featured in numerous print and online publications.

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