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Spring Swindles

It’s the season for these four classic cons.

The new buds in your flower beds are Mother Nature’s sign that spring has arrived. And it’s also time for scammers to give new life to cons that go into full swing this time of year:

Door-to-door deception. When the weather turns warmer, fundraising scams by door-knocking young swindlers get hot. Often you’re told that buying a magazine subscription will help a worthy cause. Not only can these subscriptions be expensive—sometimes 300 percent more than the regular price—but the magazines may never arrive. Paying with a check or credit card can give the visiting hustler account numbers to commit more fraud on your dime.

Your defense: Unless you recognize the solicitor, be very careful about opening your door.

The tax refund ruse. Bogus e-mails purporting to be from the IRS are common during tax season. But after April 15, they often contain especially enticing bait, the promise of a fat refund if you’ll just provide your Social Security number to prove you’re you. The e-mail is usually just an attempt to get personal information for identity theft.

Or it may contain an attachment that supposedly has details of your refund. Opening the attachment unleashes dangerous malware on your computer, including keystroke loggers that can give the spammers your account numbers and passwords.

Your defense: Delete—without opening—any unsolicited e-mail from the IRS and wait for your real refund to come the authentic way, via the U.S. Postal Service or a direct deposit.

Home repair hoaxes. The scammers cruise your neighborhood’s streets, offering cut-rate deals on asphalt paving, roof work or other needed repairs that they claim to have spotted from their pickups. While the price may sound good, they often ask for upfront payment, only to vanish after claiming they’re going off to buy materials. Or they suddenly jack up the cost after starting the work. If they arrive in teams, one “contractor” may divert you while another burglarizes your home.

Your defense: Keep in mind that legitimate contractors rarely go door-to-door looking for business and any requirement of upfront payment is a red flag. Beware of an out-of-state license plate, which suggests a fly-by-night scammer.

If you need work done, get recommendations from friends, neighbors or your local building inspector. Check the Better Business Bureau and your local courthouse to see if any lawsuits were filed against a contractor you’re considering.

You won, now pay us. Sweepstakes swindles tend to proliferate in the spring and early summer, with an onslaught of letters and e-mail notifications that you have won some nationally known prize or even some European lottery you’ve never heard of. Problem is, you’re asked to pay processing fees or expenses to receive your jackpot.

Your defense: Don’t respond. In reality, you never have to pay to collect winnings from an authentic prize.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).