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Cons That Bloom in the Spring

Protect yourself from these scams

En español | Spring is prime time for several perennial scams: home-improvement con artists who promise low rates on asphalt paving, roof work or garden prep, but don't deliver. Door-to-door solicitors who falsely claim to be collecting for charity or sell subscriptions to magazines that never arrive.

See also: Hands-free pickpocketing.

And after Tax Day, there's an upsurge in bogus e-mails purportedly from the IRS trying to make you reveal personal information or click on links that infect your computer with a dangerous virus.

spring scams

Richard Ross/Anzenberger/Redux

Notice a trend? These common spring scams hit home, literally.

As the weather improves, your mind and body naturally gravitate toward the outdoors. And as you make vacation plans or head out for everyday chores, scammers are happy to follow, with some less-publicized seasonal schemes like these:

'Free' Vacations

The claim: A phone call, postcard or mailed "travel voucher" tells you you've won a free or hugely discounted vacation.

The catch: First you need to provide a credit card number to pay a deposit or service fee.

Do that and the nightmare of your dream vacation begins. In some schemes, the goal is to get you to join an expensive and problem-filled vacation club.

Or your money may actually get you a hotel stay, but the promised beachfront resort is really a one-star facility miles from the ocean. Or your cruise fees don't include charges that are later tacked on and exceed the cost of booking a sea escape the usual way. Or your supposedly free vacation requires you to book a second guest at an inflated price.

Your defense: "Free" means just that — so don't send deposits or service fees. Beware especially of buzzwords such as "vacation offer," "you're eligible to win" or "guaranteed."

And if you're told to phone a number for more details and it begins with an area code of 876, 868, 809, 758, 784, 664, 473, 441, 284 or 246, it's likely a phone scam: Those codes look American, but they're for Caribbean countries and Bermuda. Calls to them typically mean long periods on hold and transfers to rack up long-distance charges of up to $5 per minute. Also beware of 900 area code calls.

The Rental Rip-Off

The claim: Choice vacation rentals or year-round housing are offered at below-market rates in classified ads online or in newspapers.

The catch: The rentals don't really exist.

Scammers simply write phony ads, sometimes decorating them with photos and property descriptions that they steal from legitimate websites. Through e-mail or phone exchanges, a deal is struck, and you're asked to complete an application form or to pay upfront, usually via a wire transfer. But the application form really serves to get personal information for identity theft. And if you pay in advance, you'll later learn that the dwelling is occupied, doesn't exist, or you were mailed nonworking keys.

Your defense: Contact a legitimate local real estate or travel agent for permanent or vacation shelter. Walk away from any rental offer that involves a wire transfer. Be careful with any landlord or listing agent who writes or speaks in broken English (these bogus ads are often posted by scammers, who use free Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo e-mail accounts). And always check the property's address yourself through an online search. If it's truly for rent, you can get confirmation of that through a phone call.

Grandparents Scam

The claim: Your grandchild has been arrested, hospitalized or subjected to some other hardship while off on spring break.

The catch: It's not your grandchild calling.

This widespread scheme that targets older Americans occurs year-round, but with many college-age grandkids away on spring vacations, scammers take particular advantage at this time of year.

Scammers can get names and family details from Facebook, newspaper websites, obits and anniversary announcements, and telephone directories. Then, using your grandchild's name — or saying, "Hi, it's your favorite grandson!" to let you fill in the blanks — the caller claims some vacationing hardship and urgently requests that money be wired to Canada, Mexico or elsewhere for bailout from the alleged crisis.

Your defense: Don't take the bait like thousands of loving grandparents have. If you're not sure, call your grandchild's home or cell number to ask if there's a problem. If the caller claims to be a lawyer, police officer or doctor helping a grandchild in need, a five-minute online search can yield the phone number of the reported law firm, police station or hospital for any call back on your part.

Parking Lot Scams

You don't have to travel far to be steered toward a scam. Some common spring-intensive ploys that are as close as a parking lot down the road:

  • Tricky tickets. You return to your car to discover it has been ticketed for illegal parking. The ticket looks official enough, with a website promising easy online payment. Don't go there: Some of these websites are just bait to infect your computer with a virus that can steal your personal information. So, if you're ticketed, examine the ticket closely and check the Yellow Pages to contact the correct issuing agency or court.

  • You drive up to a stadium, restaurant or other event venue and attendants direct you to a nearby lot. After paying in advance, you collect a claim check for your car, only to return from the festivities and find that your ride is gone.

    Reason: The attendant took the money and ran — and the lot's real owner called a towing company. So when parking near any event venue, stick to lots with real signs — not "Park Here" painted on plywood — and with booths and uniformed attendants that indicate legitimacy.

  • You return from shopping and find your car won't start. People approach saying they've noticed your problem and offer to look under the hood. What you don't know is that while you were in the store, they disabled your car in an easily correctable way, such as disconnecting an electrical cable.

    Long story short: These Good Samaritans quickly get your engine started and out of gratitude or after a not-so-subtle suggestion, you hand over some cash. For a happier ending, call AAA or a handy friend if you're suddenly stranded.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling. Have a look at our Scam Alert archive for past warnings about the con artists who too often seek to part Americans from their hard-earned money.