6 Summer Scams & How to Avoid Them

Just as mosquitoes can ruin a summer picnic, a good scammer can turn a winning day into a master class on losing your mind.

As the weather gets warmer, mosquitos and ticks re-enter our lives, and along with them comes their larger cousin, the scam artist. There are ways to prepare for those seasonal meal stealers. The same goes for scams, as foreknowledge is the best repellent.

Ticks and mosquitos aren’t harmless — they are well-known vectors for serious illnesses. Scam artists are also vectors for a plague that affects millions of people each year: identity theft. But sometimes a scam is of the simpler smash-and-grab variety.

Either way, some scams never seem to get old, as evidenced by the huge number of people that continue to fall for them no matter how many warnings we issue. There are always new variations that snare even the wariest consumers.

With that, I give you this summer’s smorgasbord of scams.

1. The Summer Rental Scam

It’s not the easiest thing on earth to find a summer rental that has all the right elements: a reasonable distance from the beach, the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms, a pets welcome policy. So, when you do find the right one, the tendency for most people is to pounce. Don’t be most people. If you get scammed on a rental, you’re not going to know till you show up at the front door and a puzzled person peers back at you. Oh yeah, and good luck finding the rental office, because it’s an abandoned drive-in.

The best thing you can do is visit the property in question beforehand. If you are working with a real estate agent, ask for his or her license number and check it, request references if there are no reviews online and confirm that the address is real and the premises are truly available for rent. Some home-rental websites have their own vetting processes and offer guarantees that will protect you in case of fraud.

2. Summer Job as Credit Application

It is not completely bizarre to need a background check before getting hired, but chances are that the young person in your life looking for a summer job is not applying to be a bank clerk or armored car driver. When it comes to providing personally identifiable information to an employer, use your head.

It is sadly a common occurrence that when kids are offered a “job,” they provide their information for tax purposes, including their Social Security number, and then never hear back. The reason: The only “job” was a robbery. Their identity is stolen, and because kids will be kids, it often takes a long time for them to realize the jerk who flaked on a summer job offer gutted their creditworthiness. (Here are four ways identity theft can impact your credit.)

Never provide sensitive personal information to a job site or anyone claiming to offer a job at the start of the process. Before you show up for an interview, make sure the job is legit: You can figure this out by doing an online search or making a few phone calls.

3. Door-Knocker Scams

Summer is the time for door-knocking scams. It can be anything really. Sometimes the knocker wants you to help save an endangered species or an embattled population far away, sometimes they are selling a lawn service, home maintenance or sustainably produced electricity — all these causes, services and products may be legitimate, but the person offering them … not so much.

If a stranger comes to your door, your level of suspicion should be high from a personal and digital security perspective. If you like what a knocker has to say, tell them that you will go online to help their cause or buy a product, and send them on their way.

4. Wi-Fi Scams

This is a year-round thing, but people still get got all the time by phony Wi-Fi scams, and the problem is only getting worse now that more municipalities are offering free access to the internet. The problem is that free Wi-Fi doesn’t guarantee secure Wi-Fi.

Always check with the network provider or someone of authority before logging on to any new wireless connection. Use a VPN, or virtual private network, to conduct any transactions that involve sensitive information. (Here are 50 more ways to avoid falling victim to hackers.)

5. Front Desk & Fake Menu Scams

Hotel scams are many and various, and it’s best just to remember that you are a target whenever you are traveling, but there are two scams that are sufficiently common. The first is the front desk scam, which is pretty simple.

You check in late, you’re tired and your phone rings. The scammer doesn’t know when you checked in. He or she is calling random rooms. You are told there is a problem with your credit card. Can you please confirm the number? The second scam to look out for is the menu scam. Scammers produce fake ones, and then steal your credit card information when you call to place an order.

If you get a call from the front desk, hang up and call back or go in person to confirm your payment method. Use your smartphone to order food or call the front desk for suggestions.

6. Moving Scams

Summertime is moving time. Just make sure your relocation isn’t a moving experience of the hair-pulling kind. While there are many great services out there, there are also some fraudulent ones that could wind up costing you big time.

With new online services like Task Rabbit and Angie’s List to name but two, there are ways to choose a moving service, large or small, that suits your needs and provides reviews. Just make sure you check out their reputation online before they show up at your door.

You May Have Identity Theft Repellent

Just as mosquitoes can ruin a summer picnic, a good scammer can turn a winning day into a master class on losing your mind as bank accounts are drained, credit cards are maxed out and large purchases are made in your name. There’s a way out, and you may already be covered.

If you think you might have been a victim of identity theft, it’s important to monitor your credit for anything out of the ordinary — primarily accounts and delinquencies you don’t recognize. You can get a copy of each of your three major credit reports for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com and you can use a free tool like Credit.com’s credit report card to check for signs of identity theft every month.

It’s also a good idea to check with your insurance agent, bank, credit union or the HR department where you work. It is increasingly more common as a perk of your relationship with the institution to be offered free access to a program that provides education, proactive assistance and damage control if you become a victim of identity theft.

If it’s not free, you may be able to get it at a minimal cost. (Full disclosure: CyberScout, a company I founded in 2003, provides these services to institutional clients, and they in turn offer the service to their clients, customers, members or employees.)

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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Are You Hack-Proof? Here’s How to Make Sure

If you see a story about a data breach or a security compromise on a device you use, consider that an action item for your day.

While the writing has been on the wall for a long time, last Friday it was in the news wires when a new strain of ransomware called WannaCrypt raged like an out-of-control wildfire across Europe and Asia, ultimately impacting computers in 150 countries.

For many affected by this hack, a few hundred dollars in ransom money is a pittance when compared to the cost of hiring someone to attempt the recovery of your files after they’ve been encrypted. These ransomware attacks would cease to be profitable were there easy workarounds. But at this time, it is highly likely that if you happen to get got by one of these attacks, you should assume your files could be gone for good.

That’s why it’s critical you learn how to protect yourself.

Cyber Hygiene

If you’re like most people, you spend about 40 minutes a day on personal hygiene. While that’s a considerable amount of time, you probably don’t consider it to be an issue. It is not the same thing when it comes to cybersecurity. Were it as simple as downloading and installing software updates, the time spent on cyber grooming would be minimal (though the patches do seem to come fast and furious these days).

The issue really is that cyber hygiene is something one should practice 24/7/365. Come to think of it, it requires about the same amount of commitment and mindfulness as it takes to make sure your hair is OK and there’s no spinach in your teeth.

Here are some things to consider including in your daily cybersecurity routine.

1. Install Updates

When you are trying to find something online or use an app, an update notice can be like a mosquito that’s overly interested in you, but the last thing you should ever do is swat that notice away. It is often the only thing standing between you and the bad guys out there who are looking for a way to exploit weaknesses in the security features of the devices you use on a daily basis.

2. Use Standard Encryption

Both Apple and PC now offer a way to protect the content stored on your hard drive, and it’s so easy there’s no reason not to use it. It’s called FileVault on Apple and BitLocker on PCs. It is easy to set up, and renders everything on your machine unreadable by a hacker who gains access to it.

3. Back Up Your Digital Life on an External Drive

For less than $60, you can purchase an external hard drive large enough to store an immense amount of data. That’s where you want to keep your most sensitive personal information. The reason is simple: It is air-gapped (not connected to the internet) most, if not all, of the time. There is no need to be online to backup your hard drive to an external drive. Extra points if you encrypt your data.

4. Use a Password Manager

If you’re not using long and strong passwords, or still using the same password across multiple platforms and websites, you need to read this. For those who get over that rather low bar, it’s time to improve your game. It used to be that people made cheat sheets with their passwords and stored them in their desks (bad) or on an encrypted thumb drive (way better). That’s no longer necessary. Password managers take away the risk associated with having your passwords written down where they can be found and used. You need only remember one. As far as services go, there are many, and all are better than older methods of managing passwords. Research them online and make sure to read their reviews.

5. Read the URL Address

There are more spoof sites out there than you may realize, and they are there to do harm, not good. Always look at the URL to be sure you are on the site you intended to visit and not a clone — the clone will often have a very similar address, so look closely. For an additional layer of security, you might want to consider downloading HTTPS Everywhere, a plug-in that works on Chrome and Firefox and enables HTTPS encryption automatically on sites that support it.

6. Think Before You Click

The number one way people get got is thoughtless clicking. Whether it is a fake or corrupted website designed to plant malware on your device or a phishing email that looks like it came from a trusted institution or a friend but is in reality from a cyber fiend, you must have a pause in place — and it has to be automatic — when it comes to clicking on anything that comes your way from “out there,” even — or especially if — it looks like a friend or family member sent it.

7. Make Your Security a Seamless Part of Your Day

If you see a story about a data breach or a security compromise on a device you use, consider that an action item for your day. Just take a second to find out if you are affected, and then take whatever precaution you can. The 40 minutes that average person spends on personal grooming is a good rule of thumb. Think of your cyber hygiene like a glance in the mirror.

8. Use Two-Factor Authentication

Increasingly, two-factor authentication is available on the accounts we use daily, and it is essential that you set it up. It means that if a person hijacks one of your accounts, there isn’t much damage they can do without also having possession of your mobile phone or access to your email account. It’s an easy measure anyone can take to improve their personal cybersecurity.

In my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves, I go into greater detail about the various ways your information can be got and what you can do to protect it. The main lesson: Practice what I call “The Three Ms,” which are as follows:

  • Minimize Your Exposure. Don’t authenticate yourself to anyone unless you are in control of the interaction, don’t overshare on social media, be a good steward of your passwords, safeguard any documents that can be used to hijack your identity, and consider freezing your credit. (Here’s how to decide if you need a credit freeze.)
  • Monitor Your Accounts. Check your credit report religiously, keep track of your credit score, read Explanation of Benefits statements from your health insurer and review major accounts daily, if possible. (You can check two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.) If you prefer a more laid-back approach, sign up for free transaction alerts from your bank, credit union and credit card companies or purchase a sophisticated credit and identity monitoring program.
  • Manage the Damage. Make sure you get on top of any incursion into your identity quickly and/or enroll in a program where professionals help you navigate and resolve compromises. These are oftentimes available for free or at a minimal cost through insurance companies, financial institutions and HR departments.

Worried about getting hacked? You can find a full 50 ways to avoid (and deal with) a cyberattack on Credit.com. 

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6 Easter Scams You Want to Avoid

Easter is a time for family, but there are six scams you'll want to watch out for.

Easter is a time for family, colorful parties and egg hunts, but sadly it also attracts scam artists looking to make a quick buck during the high-fructose corn syrup free-for-all.

There are all stripes of Eastertime cons and scams waiting for you if you’re not paying attention — or even if you are. Some don’t really qualify as scams, whether we’re talking about those colorful plastic eggs for storing treats, sometimes loaded with lead paint, that old favorite Kinder Eggs, now illegal due to choking hazards, or folks selling bad chocolate. First and foremost, you need to be a savvy consumer.

But awareness isn’t such an easy thing when there are so many ways a person can get scammed. Here are six scams to watch out for.

1. Charity Scams

Some people say Easter was originally a pagan holiday to celebrate fertility, which explains the eggs and bunnies, but it’s primarily a religious holiday, and as such there are plenty of scams out there pointed at spiritually minded people looking to make the world a better place.

If you get an email from a charity, even if it’s one you’ve given to in the past, don’t click any links. Type in the URL or find it through search and make sure the address is correct. Scam sites will often be slightly different than legitimate ones. And although this should go without saying, never give a donation over the phone if you receive an unsolicited solicitation. Call the charity, or use a secure site to make your contribution rather than providing your information by phone, or send a check.

2. E-Cards

As I’ve said ad nauseam, including in my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves, never click strange links or download files you receive — even e-cards that appear to be from loved ones or friends. E-cards can mask links to malware.

3. Cute Meme Scams

The same thing goes for all the cute stuff you get via email this time of year. Before you click on the link below a message, ask yourself: Is it worth hours of hassle getting a virus off your computer or causing malware to install ransomware or a keystroke logger on your machine that gives a crook access to every financial account you visit on your computer?

4. Pet Scams

For better or worse (usually worse for the animals), adorable pet babies are a gift idea associated with Easter. In addition to the question as to whether unexpected livestock or woodland creatures are a good idea, if you’re going to go pet shopping for the holiday, beware that scammers are lying in wait to grab your money and disappear into thin air. Whenever buying a pet, do it in person.

5. Airline Scams

Easter Week is often during a school recess, and many people try to book last-minute travel. Be very careful when booking flights. Take the time to determine whether or not it’s a scam. For starters, only do business with a secure (look for the padlock next to the URL) and well-reviewed site, and make sure the address is correct. (You can see more tips for surfing the internet safely here.) Also take the time to read and understand the privacy policy.

It could be that you receive an email or a phone call informing you that you have a chance to cash in on a big win: Free airline tickets. There have been several attempts to contact you about the tickets (you won them through a sweepstakes you have never heard of, in which you were automatically enrolled when you purchased some product or service you can’t recall, and you’re going to lose the tickets if you don’t act quickly. There are certain requirements. But meeting those obligations will cost you far more than the alleged free tickets.

6. Last-Minute Vacation Rental Scam

The scam happens when a thief finds a rental property online and uses the details to create his or her own website and listing. There may even be bogus five-star reviews, and the deal will sound particularly affordable, possibly due to a one-day-only internet sale. You book the listing, pay either by credit card or wire transfer, and pack your bags.

Here’s the problem: When the time comes and you show up for your vacation, that’s not your condo. It’s not just a matter of bait and switch, where the gorgeous property on the website doesn’t exactly live up to the reality. In this case, the property is very real and even very beautiful … but you didn’t rent it. There may even be another family inside. You now find yourself on vacation with nowhere to sleep, and your scammer is nowhere to be found.

Tip: Whenever you’re booking a rental property — for any reason, not just a beach getaway — there’s a sneaky little trick you can use to verify the authenticity of the listing and the property. Instead of emailing, call the person, but first do an online search for other businesses in the area surrounding the property, then ask the contact some specific questions to which you’ve already figured out the answers. How far is it to the nearest beach access? Where is the nearest restaurant with a kids’ menu? How far are we from an emergency room in case someone in our group gets hurt?

The thing about an Easter sugar high is that it makes you happy, and then you crash. When it comes to these scams, it’s all crash and no high. If you have reason to believe you’ve been the victim of a scam, don’t brush it off. You can check for warning signs by viewing two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.

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How to Enjoy Your Vacation Without Getting Scammed

These are the scams to look out for while you're getting your vacation on.

Spring has begun, which means open season on travelers who aren’t well-versed in the various scams waiting for them on the seamier side of paradise. While the scams abound, being forewarned is forearmed.

Here are some typical scams that can ruin your vacation, drawn from my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Filled with Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves.

1. Asocial Media?

One seldom publicized use of social media (at least in crime circles) involves monitoring posted photographs for clues about where you live and what you have that’s worth stealing. In addition to providing a visual inventory, photographs can contain hidden information called geotags that allow a thief to pinpoint the location of your home. If you post pictures while you’re on vacation, you might as well display a flashing neon sign saying, “Rob me.” Rather than sharing your adventure in real time, it is far safer to relive the memories with everyone you know when you return. If you simply can’t resist the urge, at the very least tighten your privacy settings so that you strictly limit who can see these posts.

2. Ticket Scams

You receive a letter informing you that you have a chance to cash in on a big win: free airline tickets. There have been several attempts to contact you about the tickets (you won them through a sweepstakes you have never heard of, in which you were automatically enrolled), and you’re going to lose them if you don’t contact the travel agency or cruise line immediately. The letter provides a toll-free number to call. You call it and there are … well, certain requirements (like providing a credit card or Social Security number). Meeting those obligations will cost you far more than the alleged free tickets. (Fallen for this one? Be sure to check your credit for warning signs of identity theft. You can view two of your credit scores for free, with updates every two weeks, on Credit.com.)

3. Hotel Front Desk Scam

Your plane gets in late, you can’t get a taxi and by the time you arrive at your hotel all you want to do is take a shower and go to bed. About an hour after checking in, the phone in your room rings. It’s the front desk calling to tell you that the credit card you gave them was declined. “Can you please read me your credit card number again? Or, if you would prefer, you can give me another credit card.” If this happens, in lieu of readily handing over your digits, take a trip to hotel lobby to confirm whether there is an actual issue.,

4. Hotel Pizza Scam

When you check into your hotel, you see flyers in the lobby or under your door for a pizza joint. It’s late and you’re starving, so you call the number on the flyer. Someone answers exactly the way you expect they will. You place your order. They ask for your credit card number, which you immediately provide because your mind is on the pie and not your personally identifiable information. Several hours later, you’re still waiting. And starving. Unfortunately, the only one getting fed is the thief — and your credit card is for dinner.

5. Vacation Rental Scam

A thief finds a rental property online and uses the details to create his own website and listing. They’ll even have bogus five-star reviews from fake renters, and it will be particularly affordable, possibly due to a one-day-only internet sale. You book the listing and pay either by credit card or wire transfer, and you get ready to pack your bags.

Here’s the problem: When the time comes and you show up for your vacation, that’s not your condo. It’s not just a matter of bait and switch, where the gorgeous property on the website doesn’t exactly live up to reality. In this case, the property is very real and even very beautiful … but you didn’t rent it. There may even be another family staying in it that week. You now find yourself on vacation with nowhere to sleep, and your scammer is nowhere to be found.

If the person can’t answer questions accurately — or takes too long to answer, which indicates that they’re also doing an online search —that could be a red flag. It is possible that the rental agent is located in another city, but someone in his or her offices should have at least laid eyes on the property and be able give you an idea of the answers.

Tip: Whenever you’re booking a rental property — for any reason, not just a beach getaway — there’s a sneaky little trick you can use to verify the authenticity of the listing and the property. Instead of emailing, call the person on the phone, but first do an online search for other businesses in the area surrounding the property, then ask the listing agent some specific questions that you’ve already figured out the answers to. How far is it to the nearest beach access? Where is the nearest restaurant with a kids’ menu? How far are we from an emergency room in case someone in our group gets hurt?

6. Skimmers

Keypad overlay devices, ATM skimmers (you can see one in action here) with a pinhole camera — there are many versions. Sometimes skimmers and the hardware associated with them can be spotted (if you know what you’re looking for and it’s one of the skimmers you can detect, for instance, by banging on the ATM machine or trying to shake the user-interface module), but often it’s impossible to detect a skimmer scam. When you’re out having fun, by definition you are distracted and understandably off guard. Try to remember that even in the midst of the time of your life there are bad guys out there intent on a major buzzkill. And monitor your bank statements carefully so you spot any fraud that may have occurred.

7. Wi-Fi Scams

Not all Wi-Fi is created equal, and it’s not all secure. If you’re not sure about a Wi-Fi connection, be careful about what you do online. Do your banking and bill paying on your secure home network, and let your time off truly be downtime so that you don’t end up having a downer of a vacation. You can go here to learn more tips for better internet safety.

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Here’s What to Do the Next Time a Business Asks for Your Credit Card by Phone or Email

When we provide our credit card information via remote means, we are often made more vulnerable to identity theft. Here's why.

Recently, I was booking a hotel reservation for a family member and in the process was asked to provide certain information. It was a simple third-party credit card authorization. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty.

Beyond the fact that I am professionally paranoid — I wrote a book about it — there are so many ways for your information to wind up in the wrong hands, especially your credit card information. When we provide our credit card information via remote means, we are often made more vulnerable to identity theft by the authentication process itself.

There is no best way to conduct this sort of business remotely without putting ourselves in danger of becoming victims of identity theft, but there are better and worse ones. These days, it’s more expedient to focus on the very few ways sensitive information can be made available to third parties without creating unnecessary exposure.

A Better Way for Another Day?

If you are unfazed about sending your information via electronic means, consider something similar: paying for a meal with a credit card. We expose our data and send it on a journey every time we pay a bill at a restaurant.

I saw my first portable credit card reader on American soil the other day when paying the bill at a new restaurant. First, I want to say that the lunch was excellent, and I would have gone back even if the waiter hadn’t trotted out that marvelous handheld identity theft reduction device. I am scam-obsessed, and have long envied our friends on the other side of the Atlantic — and locations in other directions as well — for the ubiquity of at-table card payment.

The reason those machines are great is simple: The server has no opportunity to write down or photograph your card information.

Let that sink in … It’s unsettling now that you think about it, right? All those times a server has walked away with your credit card, what stopped him or her from snapping a quick pic of the front and back before returning to your table?

That reader is new technology. The service industry is finally (belatedly) getting hip to the challenge of protecting consumers from identity theft and other scams, but what should you do while it’s still in catch-up mode?

How to Send Your Stuff

The form that was emailed to me by the hotel made the threat of a sneaky waiter snapping pics of my credit card seem like amateur hour.

Obviously, the reservations department asked for my credit card number and expiration date. They also wanted my billing address, work and home phone numbers, email address and signature. Then there was the outline of a box, under which were the words: “Copy front of the credit card” and “Copy of ID.”

Now, I’ve already confessed to being someone who looks for the angle crooks will try to use. The idea of sending, in addition to all the other information requested, an image of a valid form of identification — in my case, my driver’s license — was truly unthinkable. I’d sooner have my Social Security number puffed out by a skywriter over the House that Ruth Built during a Yankees-Red Sox playoff game. (Not convinced? Read up on the surprising ways identity theft can hurt you.)

The form gave me the option of sending my cornucopia of sensitive personal information via email or by way of fax. Which is the better choice?

Hackers Are Really Good at What They Do

Phone calls and faxes conducted over phone lines can be rerouted, emails can be intercepted. Phone calls can also be listened to, and therein lies another problem. When you call a service provider — any kind that costs a set amount every month— there will come a time during the call when you will have to provide your Social Security number so that the company can run a credit check. A service rep is going to ask you for it — the whole thing.

Remember the waiter? Same problem.

Absolutely nothing can stop that person from writing down your information. And before you ask why you can’t input the information on your keypad, remember: Phone calls are not secure, the tones can be intercepted. Encryption is both complex and costly. This is why the federal government has been investigating the possibility of a universal identifier. But in the meantime, those credit checks or authentications pose the same, if not greater, peril as your credit card’s journey at most restaurants.

Old Is New (But Not Fail-Safe)

As counterintuitive as it seems, using the fax in this scenario is the safer path, though it is not completely safe given the possibility of data interception.

Pro tip: Call before sending a fax that contains personally identifiable information or anything else that is for as few eyes as necessary, and ask the person on the phone if they are near the fax machine, or if not if they can be. Call again to make sure the transmission has been retrieved and isn’t just sitting in a tray waiting for a scam artist to come sauntering by with a smartphone and a shopping list of things they want to purchase using your information.

While we await better solutions, you are the ultimate guardian of your personal information, and your vigilance given the myriad threats out there will lead the way for change. In the meantime, get in the habit of monitoring your finances for any sign of mischief. You can view two of your free credit scores, with helpful updates every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.

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You Have Just 100 Days to Plan for Holiday Scams

christmas-scams-2016

Whether you are hoping we can “Make America Great Again,” working tirelessly for those who say that we are “Stronger Together,” or simply trying to make it through another day, it is highly likely that Christmas is the furthest thing from your thoughts right now.

But with only 54 days ‘till Election Day, I can already tell you what’s going to happen, and it’s not going to be pretty. I’m not talking about the continuing controversies over hacked email accounts or electronic voting systems. I’m not even talking about all the sore losers and obnoxious winners there will be no matter who wins.

You Better Not Cry

On November 9, America will wake up to a new leader of the free world. And with all the feelings (elation, dread, boredom) to which that gives rise, I still want to point out another horror show waiting on the other side of the election. There will be just 46 days until Christmas.

If you didn’t have insomnia leading up to Election Day, the night after might be your unlucky day.

Not worried? Consider for a moment that while you were thinking about politics, football and maybe Thanksgiving, the economic juggernaut that is Christmas has been rolling since January. All the people who make the holiday profitable have already spent tons of time thinking specifically about you.

That said, there are a lot of not-so-nice guys out there (also known as scam artists, criminals, swindlers and crooks), who have also spent a great deal of time thinking about you, and have been sharpening their proverbial knives in anticipation of a very merry Christmas. With all this in mind, here are some of the things you should look out for in the 100 days until Christmas.

1. Charity Scams

‘Tis the season to give until it hurts both emotionally (oh, those family get-togethers) and financially. But if you’re not careful, the emotional and financial will intersect when you are scammed by a fake charity.

I know, pretty harsh, right? Well, if only the likes of the Grinch can steal the entirety of Christmas (and as you’ll recall he actually couldn’t) there are plenty of grungy cranks out there who are perfectly happy to steal your donation of $10, $20, $100 or more (and they can). They do it with phishing scams: an email or text designed to look like it’s from a charity. Or that strategically placed dinnertime call when your impulse to be a good neighbor collides with your desire to get off the phone and back to the table.

How to avoid this: Always give directly to a charity. This goes for your cyber giving and real-time charity. Not all bell-ringing Santas are working for the Salvation Army, but if you go to the right site (that you have independently confirmed), with the right security (HTTPS and the little lock), you can be sure your money gets to the right people.

2. Fake Jobs

With the holiday rush, companies hire. This is a boon for everyone, potentially, but it also opens the door to identity-related scams. Be on the lookout for job applications that require detailed personal information just to qualify, and if you are applying online, make sure the site and the company are the real deal by making phone calls, searching online and relentlessly checking consumer reviews. If you believe you’ve been the victim of a scam, it’s a good idea to check your credit to see if your scores have fallen. (You can view two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.)

3. Holiday E-Cards

Holiday cards are fun. You get to see how kids have grown and check out your friend’s new car (I’m amazed at how many family portraits include the family car). But be careful because there are plenty of fake cards sent using your hacked or otherwise compromised address book or one that belongs to someone you know. The result: a holiday card that doesn’t seem odd, but open the wrong one, and you’ve just been phished.

Solution: There’s no silver bullet here, but always look at the URL and make sure that it is spelled correctly, because many of these scams operate spoof sites that require sharp powers of observation to detect, such as words spe1led slightly differently. (Did you catch that?)

4. Unsafe Online Shopping

No matter how pressed for time you are, no matter how forgetful-so-you-better-get-it-done-while-you’re-thinking-about-it (like me) you might be, try to avoid using public Wi-Fi to do your holiday shopping and never, ever use public Wi-Fi and your credit card at same time. There are often hackers sitting nearby either manning fake public Wi-Fi or ready to grab your information with a man-in-the-middle attack.

Tip: Rather than familiarizing yourself with every scam out there, just avoid public Wi-Fi for anything other than browsing the Internet.

5. Unlocked Devices

Doubtless you noticed several mentions of phishing scams above. This final suggestion is wildly popular with parents: Get your child their own tablet or smartphone.

It is impossible to police a child’s every click, and if that kid is on a family-wide device that also contains cookies and bookmarks and the like associated with bank accounts and other information housed by financial institutions, putting that device in a child’s hand is courting disaster.

There, I said it.

The Takeaway

The takeaway should be not to get taken (or carried away) this holiday season. Never let your Fear of Looking Like a Grinch (FOLLAG) trump your Fear of Getting Ripped Off (FOGRO).

In addition to all those manufacturers and retailers and marketing wizards hoping for a robust Black Friday and magnificent Cyber Monday, there will lurk all stripes of holiday exploiters as we wend our way toward the holidays. While ‘tis the season for commerce and acquisition ecstasy, there is an army of potential holiday wreckers out there, so be careful.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

Image: kzenon

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6 Scams to Watch Out for This Summer

Summer will be here before you know it, and with it come new and old scams. As you consider possible escapes — travel to exotic places; trips to the beach, the mountains or the golf course; a staycation to get much needed work done around your house — bear in mind that these diversions provide the perfect opportunity for con artists and identity thieves just waiting to insinuate themselves into your life, becoming the sand in your picnic basket (or bathing suit) — a vacation-killing burn that no ointment can soothe.

Here are few scams to be on the lookout for this summer.

1. Thanks for the Robocalls, Congress!

Thanks to a new provision slipped into important federal legislation, you may start receiving legitimate robocalls to your mobile phone — something that was previously forbidden by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. According to Consumer Reports, buried in a recent Congressional Budget bill is a provision that allows loan servicers and other collectors of federal loan debt to use robocalls “to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.”

While these calls will mostly target student loan borrowers, fearless fraudsters will certainly take advantage of this newly legal means to dial for dollars and try to extract money from those among us who don’t read Congressional Quarterly.

TIP: Caller ID is by no means a fail-safe protection. If someone calls you regarding money you allegedly owe, ask for the name of the debt holder, hang up, double-check that the number is legit online, and then call them directly.

2. Your New Chip Card Opens the Door for Fraud

There’s a newish phishing scam that has reared its ugly head in New York state, after a fairly long run on the road involving EMV chip cards. It’s a pretty straightforward phishing scam. The emails look authentic — that is, they appear to be from a bank with which you do business — and they target people who haven’t received their new chip cards. The ask: your personal information to authorize the new card. There may be a link, and if you click, it installs malware on your computer or mobile phone.

TIP: If you have your chip card already and this scam poses a threat to you, you have bigger issues. If you do not have your new card and receive an email or call about it, either go directly to the issuer’s site or call them directly and communicate with a representative. Don’t take the bait!

3. Summer Jobs & First Jobs

New college and high school graduates, and kids home for the summer exploring the job market — possibly for the first time — are getting duped into putting their personally identifiable information (PII) to work for fraudsters via fake job scams, according to a warning from the Better Business Bureau of Central Oklahoma. Sometimes the scam is focused on collecting PII to be used in identity-related crimes, but there are other scams that involve handing over bank account information.

TIP: Check out the company online, and don’t provide your bank account number or any other sensitive personal information. While I know this is incredibly painful for anyone born after 1980, pick up the phone and call your prospective employer.

4. A Moving Scam

A Georgia family learned the hard way that hiring a “man with a van” or any other mover can be risky business. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a woman who asked not to be identified hired movers she found through an online classified ad. They delivered her things, minus about $75,000 worth of personal items. Authorities later learned that the truck used by the suspects had been stolen shortly before the “job.”

TIP: Summertime is when many people choose to relocate. If you’re moving and you need help, hire a reputable company. And always check references.

5. Summer Rental Scam

Here’s an old favorite: You begin your search for a summer place way too late and assume there will be nothing available. But hold on — suddenly you fall upon the absolutely best summer rental ever! You reach the owner or realtor (it makes no difference to a scammer if he or she pretends to be one or the other), and you send a check to the address provided or wire money to an account. He or she then gives you the details about the place. Unfortunately, you have just rented a vacant lot or an empty warehouse. Or when you show up, you discover that you are but one of five families who also rented the house — or landfill.

TIP: If you get a real estate agent on the phone, get his or her license number and check it. Also request references if there are no reviews online, confirm that the address is real and the premises are truly available for rent. Use common sense.

6. Scalpers

Summertime is tour time for the record industry, and the hottest acts can sell out thanks to ticket brokers who horde big blocks of seats for resale at extortionate prices seconds after they go on sale. While this isn’t a scam per se, it creates a fertile field for fraudsters, who offer tickets at more reasonable prices, though they’re often still more than face value. The only problem: They don’t have tickets, or at least not real ones.

TIP: If you are tempted to buy tickets secondhand, be exceedingly careful because there are all sorts counterfeit tickets for sale. Go to reputable sites or deal with folks whom you trust and have established a relationship with.

The Takeaway

Unfortunately, in a world where identity theft has become a near certainty, the season is pretty much irrelevant. When it comes to scams and other kinds of fraud, it’s always open season on you.

Minimize the damage by monitoring your credit for signs of fraud. You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com, and viewing your credit scores, also for free, each month on Credit.com.

More on Identity Theft:

Image: Robert Vautour

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How to Spot a Bogus Diet Plan

eating_healthy_meal

It’s the time of year when people look at their bank accounts — and their scales — and resolve to do a bit better next year.

There’s more than a coincidental connection between eating healthy and saving money. Researchers have found that, at least in some cases, the same part of the brain that promotes good choices also promotes good eating habits, i.e., “trade a cookie today for a healthier tomorrow.”

So it should come as little surprise that come-ons you’ll see for get-rich-quick schemes seem almost identical to pitches for weight loss programs. “Everyone will lose weight” sounds a lot like “You can’t lose with this investment;” “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days” sounds an awful lot like “15% returns or more.”

False diet claims got a lot of national attention last year when Dr. Mehmet Oz was hauled before Congress as it investigated “The Oz effect.” Products that Oz hawks on his show, many with dramatic and unproven claims, sell like hotcakes online. Oz was criticized for helping these products, but he was not accused of breaking any laws.

At the hearing, the FTC’s Mary Engle said that the agency had brought “82 law enforcement actions in the past 10 years challenging false or unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy of a wide variety of weight loss products and services.”

New Year, New Weight Loss Gotchas

By some measures, two-thirds of Americans are overweight. That’s a really big potential market. During the holiday season with all the feasts, parties and cookies, that market only gets bigger. January is the time for making self-improvement resolutions. If you are thinking about living a healthier life, that’s great. But first, resolve that you won’t fall for a diet scam.

The Federal Trade Commission sums up the medical literature on weight loss nicely on its website devoted to avoiding bogus diet plans. There’s only one healthy way to lose weight — eat less, exercise more, stick to it for a long time and don’t expect dramatic results.

“For most people, a reasonable goal is to lose about a pound a week,” the FTC says. “Getting to a healthy weight takes work. Take a pass on any product that promises miraculous results without the effort. The only thing you’ll lose is money.”

Here is the FTC’s list of most common weight loss claims, per its website:

  • Lose weight no matter how much you eat of your favorite foods! Beware of any product that claims that you can eat all the high-calorie food you want and still lose weight. Losing weight requires sensible food choices. Filling up on healthy vegetables and fruits can make it easier to say no to fattening sweets and snacks.
  • Lose weight permanently! Never diet again! Even if you’re successful in taking weight off, permanent weight loss requires permanent lifestyle changes. Don’t trust any product that promises once-and-for-all results without ongoing maintenance.
  • Just take a pill! Doctors, dieticians and other experts agree that there’s simply no magic way to lose weight without diet or exercise. Even pills approved by FDA to block the absorption of fat or help you eat less and feel full are to be taken with a low-calorie, low-fat diet and regular exercise.
  • Lose 30 pounds in 30 days! Losing weight at the rate of a pound or two a week is the most effective way to take it off and keep it off. At best, products promising lightning-fast weight loss are a scam. At worst, they can ruin your health.
  • Everybody will lose weight! Your habits and health concerns are unique. There is no one-size-fits-all product. Team up with your health care provider to design a nutrition and exercise program suited to your lifestyle and metabolism.
  • Lose weight with our miracle diet patch or cream! You’ve seen the ads for diet patches or creams that claim to melt away pounds. Don’t believe them. There’s nothing you can wear or apply to your skin that will help you lose weight.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Ingram Publishing

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