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Beware these 5 holiday scams

Among them: Charitable giving can be jolly or folly, depending on whom you give to.

By Stacy Johnson Dec 8, 2010 4:44PM

This post comes from Brandon Ballenger at partner site Money Talks News.


The holidays are a time for gift giving and gestures of good will -- which makes them the perfect time of year for scammers. When better to be selfish than in the season of selflessness?

There are lots of rip-offs out there, especially online, from fake charities to knockoff merchandise sold at "bargain" prices. If you're not careful, you can go from good Samaritan to victim in a blink of an eye, or the click of a mouse.


Check out the video below, then meet me on the other side for more.

Here's a little more detail on five of the worst scams to watch for this year:


1. Smishing. By now, you're probably familiar with phishing, where scammers try to steal passwords and credit card info with fake e-mails, often imitating your bank or other familiar merchants. Now some rip-off artists are turning to text messaging, resulting in this silly-named variant, "smishing." (It's short for SMS -- short message service -- phishing.)
Scammers use text messages hoping you'll trust them more than unsolicited e-mails, possibly preying on the assumption that phone numbers are more private or safe than e-mail addresses.
Example? You get a text that says: "We're confirming you've signed up for our dating service. You will be charged $2/day unless you cancel your order. Go to I'"
Another variation asks you to call a number, e.g., "Notice -- this is an automated message from (your bank). Your ATM card has been suspended. To reactivate call urgent at 866-###-####." When you call, a legitimate-sounding automated voice-response system asks for your account information.


Solution: If you get a text message from any company, including your cell phone provider, asking for personal details, don't call the number they provide. Contact the company directly and find out what's up. For example, if the text concerns your credit card, call the number on the back of your card. Avoid using any contact information included in the text message.


2. Fake charities. Plenty of organizations support good causes, but there are also plenty of imitators and con artists -- and many deliberately choose names that are similar to authentic charities. Other charities are technically legit, but are poorly run and spend too much of their revenue on executive salaries and fundraising instead of programs that advance their stated purpose.

Solution: Before donating, check out a charity online. A good place to start is the Better Business Bureau, which keeps a directory of charities along with evaluations and ways to inquire about them.


Be especially wary of door-to-door solicitors asking for cash donations, and never be pressured to "act now." Simply tell the person at your door that you never donate without thoroughly investigating a charity -- you'll look them up, and should you decide they're a good cause, you'll send a check.


3. Fake checks. Speaking of checks, watch out for these. There are a wide variety of check scams -- the Federal Trade Commission discusses several. One popular theme: You receive a cashier's check for something you sold on eBay, but for an amount in excess of the purchase price. The buyer asks you to deposit the check and send -- or more often wire transfer -- the difference. Weeks later your bank informs you that the cashier's check was counterfeit and the money comes back out of your account.


Solution: If anyone sends you a check for the wrong amount, ask for a corrected one. Don't offer to return the difference, and avoid wire transfers, which have few safeguards or assurances if something goes wrong. Best bet? Don't accept checks at all: Use payment services like PayPal.


4. Internet pets. While it's certainly possible to deal with a legitimate breeder online, be especially careful when buying puppies long distance. As with anything you buy online, they could be nonexistent. But even if they're real, you could be supporting a puppy mill -- a business designed to generate profits at the expense of humane treatment. Know whom you're dealing with.


Solution: Be skeptical of independent sellers on sites like Craigslist, and check things out before you buy any pet online. And most important: Why would you pay for a puppy or kitten when dozens are waiting for you at your local animal shelter? Save some money while you save a cute and innocent life.


By the way, don't ever give an animal as a surprise gift. At the first of every year, animal shelters are full of puppies and kittens given as unwanted gifts. (See: "3 reasons pets make bad gifts.")


5. Counterfeit merchandise. Buying generic is one thing. Buying counterfeit is something else entirely. There are two places where you're almost certain to confront counterfeit merchandise: on the sidewalks of major cities, and online. The U.S. government just last week shut down 82 websites selling counterfeit goods.

Solution: Buy only from trusted websites or from sellers who will show you the merchandise first, or otherwise provide evidence that it's legitimate.


Protect yourself -- and others

While avoiding holiday scams may not be easy, it is simple. Deal only with merchants and people who are verifiable and legitimate, and think twice before handing either money or personal information to anyone.


And if all this advice is obvious to you, it isn't to someone you care about, such as an elderly friend or relative. If you're confident you're scam-proof, reach out to those around you who might not be so lucky.


More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Dec 9, 2010 10:55AM
Paypal...ha!  Paypal (yes, the real, official, verified site, not a phishing front page) is using FULL bank account numbers to verify identity, supposedly a random security check.  I cannot tell you how upset I am that any company that likes to think of itself as legitimate would take a page right out of the scammers' handbook.  Now whom are we supposed to trust?
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