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A Prime Time for Fraudsters

4 cons that strike again each January

Expect some old scams in the new year. While many schemes should prompt year-round concern, January is prime time for four perennial fraudster favorites:

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Balloon being squezzed around waste with tape

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New year's weight loss resolution: a prime time for fraudsters and scams.

Pilfered IDs. This month begins a once-a-year opportunity for scammers, thanks to the mailing of tax-filing documents by employers, banks and other organizations. Through February, thieves will follow the postal carriers who fill your unlocked mailbox with W-2s, 1099s, brokerage statements and other paperwork detailing sensitive information, including your Social Security number — all of it ideal for ID theft.

Now is the time to consider safeguarding this material by renting a P.O. box, installing a locking mailbox or requesting that your mail be held at the post office for pickup. At the least, note when tax documents should arrive, and call the sender if they don't.

Diet duplicity. The most common New Year's resolution is to lose weight — and historically, more people have been duped with bogus weight-loss products than any other. Acai berry and hoodia plant scams have dominated in recent years, but beware of any "no-exercise, easy weight loss" claim. The products simply don't work.

What's more, you may find that the "free trial" cancellation window begins the moment you order, though merchandise may not arrive until after the window ends. Your credit card may be charged more than the stated price or for "monthly" orders that are actually shipped just a few days apart. Your attempts to stop the deliveries or get a refund will often go ignored.

The safer route: Eat less and exercise more.

IRS on the line. Starting this month and continuing through tax filing season, expect bogus emails (and occasionally phone calls or faxes) purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service. Claims ranging from new forms to past problems with your taxes are in fact intended to make you reveal personal information or click on links that can unleash malware onto your computer. Legitimate IRS inquiries come via U.S. mail and can be authenticated by calling 1-800-829-1040.

Romance rookery. Lonely hearts, take note: Valentine's Day is fast approaching, allowing rip-off Romeos and Juliets several weeks of online wooing before their inevitable request — darling, help me out with this financial jam I'm in.

Be especially suspicious when a cyber-sweetheart has an identity that seems perfectly tailored to the interests that you've listed online (you love pets and she claims to run an animal shelter); posts eye candy photos (possibly he's stolen it from the website of a real model); or claims to be a business tycoon or a volunteer worker overseas. If you send money, you'll be asked for more until you wise up, brokenhearted. Losses average more than $10,000.

Also of interest: Online romance for love — or money? >>

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