Holiday scammers already on the prowl

With Halloween just a memory, we’re now hearing about all the Freddy Kruegers that cause credit card nightmares during the holiday shopping season.

“Sometimes, the pathway to being a victim to fraud is the desire to find a bargain without really thinking about it,” said John Buzzard, a consumer fraud expert and product manager of FICO Card Alert Service. “You’re not going to find a Cartier watch for $50. If you could, I’d have one by now.”

The scams, which often lure victims to provide credit card numbers, have grown in sophistication over the years. One hot spot: websites that offer incredible deals on designer duds and electronics. Buy there, and you’ll be giving your credit card number to con artists.

One of the more troubling tricks is when a box is actually in the mail after you order something from these sites, and you can track the package. Yet when you open the box, you’ll find an odd item, maybe a toothbrush or a shower cap, instead of that designer deal.

As we move into the holiday season, expect even more pitches by email, text and other digital means to encourage consumers to put their purchases on plastic. But all that convenience can create easy pickings for con artists. Yes, credit cards have protections, but you don’t want to be at risk for ID theft or face the headache of clearing up fraud.

The FICO Falcon Fraud Manager Consortium research indicates that “card-not-present fraud” is a fast-growing area and now accounts for nearly half of all credit card fraud.

Miranda Perry, a staff writer for the consumer advocacy site Scambook.com, said last holiday season, plenty of websites popped up that were based in China, bragged of big bargains and had oddly worded descriptions of designer items.

“That’s just a very big red flag,” Perry said. “The $500 handbag for $20 is not a real deal.”

“When you go online, a little bit of research can save you money,” said Terry Thornton, fraud services director for Comerica Bank. She suggests taking time to search for any complaints about a site or a product before buying.

Another warning: Don’t fall for any phishing emails telling you that your computer has a virus, and you can get free security software by clicking “here.” Thornton said the virus software scam is alive and well lately.

“They lure you in,” she said.

Many consumers aren’t even doing the basics, according to an online survey released last month by Experian ProtectMyID. The survey, conducted by Harris International, surveyed more than 2,000 consumers. The survey noted risky practices:

•More than 40 percent of adults who use a smartphone say they rarely or never use a password to unlock it. Will a thief who picks up your phone have easy access to stored credit card information via a retail app?

If a phone isn’t password-protected, the phone thief could have “a very fast shopping spree on you,” said Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education for Experian ProtectMyID.

•About 57 percent of online shoppers do not always go to sites directly. Instead, they click on links that increase the risk of going to a fraudulent site designed to capture their personal information.

Todd Albery, CEO of Detroit-based Quizzle.com, which provides free credit reports and scores, said consumers should make sure they’re shopping at protected sites. “You’ll know a website is protected by the ‘https’ address and a lock icon in the Web address bar,” he said.

Beware of hackers, too. Public computers and public Wi-Fi areas that aren’t protected by a password are not good places to buy holiday items on your credit card, Albery said.

•According to the Experian ProtectMyID survey, about 29 percent of adults said they carry their Social Security card or a copy of it in their wallet or purse.

•Do not put write your PIN on the back of your debit card or keep that PIN in your wallet with a debit card. You’re making it too easy for crooks to tap into your checking or savings account.

•Here’s another clue: A car’s glove compartment isn’t a secret hiding place.

“Wallets left in glove compartments account for thousands of credit card thefts each year,” said Sukhi Sahni, a spokesperson for Capital One.

How to avoid credit card-related scams

•Be sure to log off when using online banking or online shopping sites. Do not use public Wi-Fi to shop.

•When you go shopping, take just one credit card, said John Ulzheimer, consumer credit expert at CreditSesame.com. That way, you’re limiting any fraud issues to one card versus several, if your wallet or purse is stolen.

•Frequently check purchases on your credit card and activity in your bank account. Keep an eye out for even small charges that seem odd; that’s how crooks test if a card is live.

•Use anti-virus software and real-time virus scans.

•Some card issuers, such as Discover, offer a free service called Secure Online Account Numbers, which allows card members to shop online but doesn’t reveal the account number on the Internet or allow it to be stored in a retailer’s files.

SOURCE: Detroit Free Press research

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