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Beware Holiday ID Theft

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A record 103 million Americans shopped online on Black Friday. For the first time, more of us shopped online than physically shopped in brick and mortar stores. That’s not only good news for internet retailers but also for scammers who lift $190 billion a year, much of it via the internet, from U.S. consumers, retailers and banks.

For scammers, as for us, the holiday season is the busiest time of year. The internet scam industry is proliferating like a virus and include some nifty, updated ways this year to steal our money and our holidays from us. The good news is that anti-scam brigades are also growing and tell us that scammers depend on holiday hustle and bustle and the “holiday spirit” itself to catch us unaware and make the holidays a downer for us and our loved ones.

AARP found that 70% of their members were unprepared to deal with the proliferation of ingenuous scams and has an AARP Fraud Watch Network (FWN) service that provides fraud alerts localized by state and locale. For example, residents in Westchester County, New York have been wrestling with telephone scammers who use information gleaned from social media to create often credible stories that always end in a request for money. Down the road in Chester County, Pa., residents are threatened with utility company, IRS and jury duty scams, a popular scamming theme this holiday season. You can use the handy FWN state map to see what to watch out for in your neighborhood.

Arizona’s attorney general describes the ten most popular scams with a list of do’s and dont’s. McAfee, the internet security company, also has a helpful list of things to look out for.

Online identity theft often does not involve any action taken by the victim but most holiday scams require us to respond, to take action in some way. While few of us spend our lives thinking about identity theft, it’s the only thing scammers and ID thieves think about. We can however, judge our anti-theft “fitness” by taking a short quiz developed more than a decade ago by Rutgers University. Scoring yourself can be a real eye-opener.

A host of other anti-scam websites are available and most include the following recommendations:

  1. Use common sense. If people you don’t know are emailing or calling, don’t respond or open the email. If the offer in your inbox seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Use credit cards for your purchases. Do not use debit cards for online or in-store purchases. Credit cards are harder to crack and the real credit card holder’s liability is generally minor in case of an identity theft. Debit card holders may be liable for a lot more of the theft’s value.
  3. Be careful with gift cards off the rack at supermarkets, etc. Scammers often scan the cards for its identification number, wait til it’s activated and clean it out before the gift recipient has a chance to use it.
  4. Know who you’re online with. The range of online scams seems endless, ranging from social media “friend” requests, to holiday screensavers with hidden worms attached.
  5. Holiday-related scams related to the spirit of giving often come in the form of charity requests and e-card scams.

Things were simpler when Grandma knitted sweaters for everyone, but holiday-sharing is still a beautiful experience, even though we need to be more aware these days.