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Scam Alert

Holiday Hoaxes

5 gifts you don't want

For you, it's the season of giving. For scammers, it's the ideal time for taking. Here's how you can protect your money and identity:

Shopping shenanigans. Searching online for popular gifts can lead you to scammer-run websites. Click on a fake company listing from your search results and you may unleash identity-stealing computer "malware."

See also: Free ID theft protection.

Suspicious character peering out behind wreath - scams of the holiday season

Don't let scammers get your money or personal information while doing your holiday shopping. — Illustration by Mark Matcho

Copycat websites simulating legit retailers also proliferate this time of year to collect credit card numbers or sell cheap counterfeit goods.

Defense: Never click on a link before you carefully read its address. Beware of unfamiliar firms or missing letters, misspellings or other tweaks of a legitimate company's name — instead of, for instance. When paying for an item online, provide credit card numbers only if a page's address begins with "https," not "http" — the "s" stands for security.

Gift card grift. Taking gift cards from display racks, thieves copy or use portable scanners that can read the codes under the scratch-off strips. Then they replace the cards and check toll-free numbers later to see if the cards were activated and for how much. Before your niece can spend the card you gave her, they beat her to it, using the card's number for purchases.

Defense: Purchase gift cards from a store's customer service counter or website, rather than the less secure display racks.

Greeting card gotchas. These scams begin with an email claiming someone has sent you an e-greeting. Click on the provided link or attachment and you could get malware.

Defense: Delete, without opening, any email purporting to announce a greeting from an unnamed "friend," "admirer" or even "webmaster." Legitimate notifications include a confirmation code you can use to view the card by going to the card company's website.

Deceptive deliveries. You may get email claiming that a courier service or the U.S. Postal Service has a package for you; don't click on those links promising "details." Or you may get a postcard about an "undeliverable" package. If you call the number it provides, you may be tricked into making an expensive overseas call, with the scammer getting part of what you pay.

Defense: When in doubt, contact the courier or postal service by locating its phone number yourself.

Charity cons. Holiday season is prime time for fake funds for police, firefighters, needy children or veterans.

Defense: Ignore email solicitations and be wary of fundraising phone calls — never provide a credit card number to someone who calls you. Ask for printed material. And before donating, always check out a charity's legitimacy with a phone call or online search.

Also of interest: Ways to shop safely online. >>

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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