Be wary of Internet scam artists at the holidays

WASHINGTON — The holiday season brings time with the family, large amounts of food, gifts galore — and scams.

“Holidays, like disasters, are a common time for scams to increase,” said Ed Mierzwinski, director of the consumer program at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

With the convenience of online shopping, consumers need to consider the possibility of identity theft. Other holiday rip-offs might not seem as obvious — disguising themselves through advertisements, fake charities or gift cards — but they are a threat nonetheless.

According to an October National Retail Federation survey, one-quarter of consumers plan on completing 26 percent to 50 percent of their holiday shopping online this year. Mierzwinski recommends the use of credit cards — not debit cards — when shopping online; money comes directly out of a customer’s account when purchasing with a debit card.

If someone is a victim of identity theft using a credit card, they still will have to undergo an investigation to validate the fraud, but they won’t lose the money in their account.

Other important tips:

•Make sure your shopping sites are legit: National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg said consumers should check the legitimacy of online shopping websites, especially when buying from unknown stores, and read the return policies. The goal before making a purchase, according to Greenberg, is to “get a sense that they’re the real thing.”

Be wary of cut-rate pricing: Online advertisements for merchandise priced well below the product’s typical cost are a trick used by scammers looking to get personal identification from consumers or to install malware.

As a precaution, Breyault said, people should have their antivirus software up to date when shopping online; he also recommended using stores’ smartphone applications when checking prices, because they are more secure than searching the Web.

•Watch out for charity scams: Phone calls and websites can solicit information from donors by posing as charities, and then steal from those who fall for the trap.

Mierzwinski said potential donors should use websites to check the legitimacy of charities, including GuideStar USA Inc. www.guidestar.org and CharityWatch www.charitywatch.org. Fraudulent charities can disguise themselves by using names and Web addresses similar to real ones.

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