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Fa La La or Fraud? Sneakiest Holiday Scams

charitable donations
Catherine Lane

by Sid Kirchheimer

The toppers to scams that prey on holiday shoppers: Watch out for these sneaky seasonal ploys that continue to prove their success at getting a quick buck or sneaking malware onto devices for longer-lasting fraud.

Bogus Charities

The season of giving is a peak time for taking. Top cons aimed at older donors allege help for police, firefighters, veterans and children, so be on guard for phone calls with heartstring-pulling scripts. Also beware of sound-alike organizations of well-recognized legitimate charities, such as the National Diabetes Association versus the real American Diabetes Association.

>> 10 Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

Online, don’t trust links in emails you get from charities, especially if you haven’t already provided your email address to those organizations; they could deliver malware and try to glean your card information for possible identity theft. Before pulling out your plastic or writing a check, look into a charity’s legitimacy.

Travel Scams

Cold weather means hot offers for Caribbean cruises and beach getaways — many of which can burn you. Promises of “free” plane tickets or vacations usually hide a high-pressure sales pitch to sell you a time-share or vacation-club membership. Requests for a deposit or personal information, such as a passport or Social Security number, in unsolicited offers could be from identity thieves.

To get genuine discounts, stick with reputable names and avoid unfamiliar ones that come with keyword searches or are mailed. Tricky travel sites could take your money and not deliver, or be rogue websites to install malware, or represent  vacation rental scams (also on Craigslist) that use phony listings to get upfront payment and personal information.

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E-Card Malware

Think twice before clicking on links in emails to open electronic greeting cards promising season’s greetings. Those sent by an unnamed “friend” or “admirer,” or any unrecognized name are bait to get you to click on a malware-laden link.

Even e-cards bearing the names of people you know should be suspect, possibly the result of a botnet virus that captured your email address. Legitimate e-card notifications should include a confirmation code to use to safely open the card at the issuing website, instead of an email.

Year-in-Review Traps

As the year closes, the door opens for another way to deliver malware: online “Year in Review” features that could include corrupt links. To revisit the highlights of 2014, stick with articles, photo shows and videos that you find by typing the addresses of authentic websites, not links in search engine results. Before clicking, hover your computer mouse over it; avoid bizarre URLs and those that don’t display a joined company name and .com or .org.

Setup for Future Fraud

Download with care: Holiday screen savers, music and other freebies can be fronts for malware links. Ditto mobile apps, so get these only from reputable vendors. If you buy or receive computers, smartphones or gaming devices as gifts, protect them from malware.

>> Get discounts on financial services with your AARP Member Advantages.

Letters From Santa

In a new ruse that this week warranted a warning from the Better Business Bureau, scammers are sending unsolicted emails that promise a “handwritten letter from Santa to your child.” There are two scenarios: One version solicits your credit card information for the $20 service, and you’re out that money and could risk possible identity theft. The other doesn’t request payment account details but requires personal information that could be used for ID theft or be sold to spammers. Better to pen your own Santa letter for the young ’uns.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up-to-date on the latest scams in your area.

Images: Thinkstock

Sid Kirchheimer writes Scam Alert and covers consumer issues for the AARP Bulletin. The author of " Scam-Proof Your Life", he is an avid gardener and home-improvement DIYer.

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