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Fraud Facts: How to protect yourself against holiday scams

Gina Bliss

I gave in. I said “yes” to a puppy. For five years, I said no. Puppies chew shoes, need to be housebroken and require lots of exercise. But, my daughter is 13, and she’s proven herself responsible. Not only that, but she’s a dog person. Dogs love her immediately, even the touchy ones. The puppy is a Christmas present.

Almost everything else she wanted for Christmas was related to electronics. Fraudsters love electronics too.

The holiday season is a great time for fraud and scams. All the goodwill and generosity make us all a little less alert to bad motives. I’m sorry to say that consumers should be especially skeptical at holiday time.

Cyber criminals create incredible Groupon-like coupons. These great deals lead to malware-ridden websites. Don’t forget the “free” iPad scheme. No coupon should ever ask for financial information. And remember, you should be able to find any credible offer on the company website.

There are fake gift card scams for Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target and others. These can look very real with company logos and colors. Often these are text messages that expect you to click on a link. This is smishing so the sender can steal your personal information.

The Internet is a great way to lure parents into buying that popular gift that just cannot be found in stores. It’s sold out. The problem is that when you order it, you may never receive it. And in the process, you’ve given up your personal information. It’s a double scam. Don’t respond to pop-ups, go to the company website and see if the promotion is there. Beware of rogue websites. Sometimes you can tell it’s not a legitimate website by the poor grammar in the message, and an email address that doesn’t include the name of the business.

Everyone loves to Skype. Links sent to your chatbox can infect your computer and steal your personal information. One such scam sends you a link, and a message that says, “There’s a funny picture of you at this link.” Curiosity is a powerful motivator, but once you click the link you’ve downloaded a virus that encrypts or removes some of your files. Then you may be asked to pay a fee to get your own files back!

Almost everyone enjoys social media. It looks like your “friend” on Twitter or Facebook is sending you apps or online contests so that you can receive big discounts. In reality, your friend’s account was hacked. The hacker is mining their account to get to you, and all of your friends too. Don’t fill out applications for contests on Twitter or Facebook.

Smartphones have opened a whole new set of possibilities for fraudsters. Consumers love all the instant and constant functionality in mobile devices, and that’s exactly why they’re attractive to fraudsters. Malware is a big problem for Android users right now. Beware of phishing emails, text messages and links. If it looks unfamiliar, just don’t open it.

Even QR codes can be a problem. Those are the little black and white boxes you can scan at stores to get deals on your phone. Sometimes those lead to websites that have viruses.

Only purchase apps that you research first. Be very careful of free apps because, again, you can be downloading viruses. That includes wallpaper apps, which have been a big problem for Android users in particular.

Fake charities abound this time of year to take advantage of our desire to help those who are less fortunate. Always give to charities you know and have supported in the past. If you’re interested in something new, do your homework. Research the charity, even if it sounds familiar. Fake charities often use names that are very close to legitimate charity names in order to lure unsuspecting and generous donors.

Low tech theft can still be very lucrative. Be very careful of your purse or wallet, laptop, mobile devices, and of course, bags of merchandise. Crowded, public places where we’re distracted and busy make perfect environments for purse snatchings and pickpockets.

As hard as it is to think about, we make ourselves vulnerable to theft when we have friends and family in our homes as guests. It never hurts to lock things away, especially tax returns and other documents with Social Security numbers and personal information on them. Anyone can photograph documents with a phone or other device and steal your identity. You’ll never know who did it.

Gina Bliss, CPA, CFE, is a senior manager at EFP Rotenberg LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, who specializes in internal audit, fraud audit and forensic accounting. She may be reached at (585) 295-0536 or by email at [email protected]