A Holiday Tradition: Spotting the Scams Out to Fake You Out

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Scammers and thieves are out in full force, hoping to take advantage of people who are paying more attention to sale prices and shopping lists than the dangers that might lurk in the crowded malls and beyond. 

Spotting a con artist can be a difficult task, especially when you are enjoying the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.  Whether they put a new twist on an old scam or use innovative technology as their weapon of choice, they are very good at what they do and figuring out ways to con us is their number one priority.

 As you prepare for the holiday shopping season, remember that scammers are out to fake you out --out of your money, your identity and your very sense of security. Here are a few of their many tricks, along with a few tips to help you keep your holidays free from fraud. 

Fake Debt Collection Claims
Scammers will call or write, claiming to represent a debt collection agency that has purchased a debt belonging to the victim.  The amount of the debt is generally small, and the scammer says that if payment isn't made then they'll make a report to the credit bureaus.  Often the scammer requires a checking account number or debit card number over the phone, or gives you a limited time to wire a payment to a bank account.  If you don't recognize the debt or the scammer doesn't give you enough information to confirm that it's legitimate, don't fall for it.  If in doubt, hang up and contact the agency he claims to work for to confirm that they have a collection account in your name--and then obtain the age, amount and other details of the debt they are trying to collect.  This will help you verify any claimed debt and avoid potential scams -and may tip you off that you've been the victim of identity theft.
Fake Lottery
Lottery scams aren't just about claims that you've won a lottery drawing you never entered in another country.  Some con artists approach potential victims and ask for assistance in cashing in a winning lottery ticket; the scammer will give an excuse about being an illegal immigrant and say that he or she can't cash in the ticket because of it.  A second scammer may approach and pretend to have overheard the conversation, saying that they'll stay with the ticket owner while the victim goes to cash in the ticket.  They'll often ask for some form of collateral such as money or jewelry in "good faith" to make sure that the victim doesn't run off with the ticket, and in return the scammer will offer a portion of the winnings.  As soon as the victim goes to cash in the ticket, though, the con artists split and leave the victim with a worthless piece of paper. The FTC warns consumers: do not enter foreign lotteries - most solicitations for them are fraudulent, and it is illegal to play a foreign lottery through the mail or by telephone.

Fake Checks
There are many variations of the fake check scam. Sometimes they take the form of lottery scams, sometimes they're asking for your assistance in settling an estate or other financial matter but they all work pretty much the same way.  You receive a check that appears to be drawn on a legitimate bank, which you cash and keep a portion of.  The rest you are instructed to send via Western Union to the person who sent it to you.  Soon after you do so though, you find out that it was drawn on a closed account or wasn't even a real check at all. Another popular method of this type of scam occurs when a person is sent a counterfeit money order or cashier's check for an amount that is far greater than the worth of the item that someone is selling online.  Never wire money unless you know the person it is going to. Beware: If someone you don't know wants to pay you by check but wants you to wire some of the money back -it's more than likely a scam that could end up costing you thousands of dollars.

Fake Online Ads
Scammers use many techniques to fool online shoppers, including creating fake websites, conducting fraudulent auction sales, and reshipping merchandise purchased with stolen credit cards, and selling fraudulent or stolen gift cards through auction sites at discounted prices. Unfortunately, scammers also use the anonymity of sites like Craigslist to run fake ads with the intent of making quick cash off of people who are looking for the perfect Christmas present.  The ads generally require you to mail in a payment before receiving the item, after which you either get nothing, substandard -or counterfeit goods. Victims of such a scam not only lose the money paid to the fraudster, but they may find themselves liable for receiving stolen goods. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Fake Gift Cards
Be careful when purchasing gift cards through auction sites or classified ads. It's best to only purchase gift cards directly from the retail store. If the gift card you purchase online is fraudulent, you are out the money paid for the card when the store doesn't honor for intended purchases. 

Fake Job Listings
Fake job listings are similar to fake online ads, but instead of going after shoppers they target people trying to find a job in a bad economy.   Once recruited, however, rather than becoming an employee of a legitimate business, the consumer is actually a "mule" for cyber criminals who use the consumer's or other victim's accounts to steal and launder money. Consumers continue to lose money from work-from-home scams that assist cyber criminals move stolen goods or funds. And what's worse, whether or not you have knowledge of their cons and schemes, you may face criminal charges for your participation. Remember that a legitimate job pays you, not the other way around; if a potential employer asks for money then they're likely not real jobs at all --but very likely they're real scams.

Report any known of suspected cons to the appropriate local, state or federal law enforcement and regulatory authorities.  Internet complaints can be easily reported to The Internet Crime Complaint Center.  (IC3) is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)

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