Fraud Watch: Scammers don't take holidays off

Posted
This was to have been part two of a two-part holiday scam series. Sadly, there are far more scams than can be reviewed in two brief articles so here

is part two of a three-part series.

You probably noticed that "Black Friday" sales began two weeks ago. Retailers created an early sense of urgency to promote holiday sales and while that may have improved bottom lines and generated early buying, it has created an environment that benefits scammers. While scams can occur at any time, the holidays foster an atmosphere of confusion, distraction, and stress; three conditions that increase the likelihood of victimization.

Here are some basic protective steps to take.

Never make a buying decision while in a heightened emotional state. Ask questions (con artists are skilled at asking "the right" questions). Read about the product or service before buying. Develop a refusal script to allow for breathing space for thinking.

Now that you are relaxed, let's take an objective view some critical areas that are ripe for fraud beginning with parcel delivery. Major shippers currently see an increase in the number of packages handled. This increased volume means a higher likelihood that a parcel will be left on your doorstep if nobody is home and thus likely for theft. There are reasonably easy steps to take in protecting your deliveries. Register with the shipping companies to receive notification in advance of deliveries. This provides you with alerts and allows you to schedule delivery date and time or alternate delivery location. Packages can be held at shipping facilities or designated "partner" locations (for example, FedEx often has parcels held for pickup at Walgreens stores).

Another approach is to have retailers require a signature at delivery. While some of these services carry small fees, the loss will likely far outweigh the fee. Beware of fake delivery notices, emails, and telephone calls. Criminals may contact you claiming to be either a shipping company or a retailer notifying you of a problem with a delivery and asking for identity verification with a credit card, Social Security number or other personal information. Never provide information to the caller. Ask for a shipment number or invoice number and contact the company using a known, accurate telephone number for verification.

Other areas where con artists have been active this season involve temporary seasonal job offers and credit card applications. Both of these "attacks" are successful because they prey on financial need: extra holiday income and access to extra money to make holiday purchases. Whether by mail, phone, or internet, these phishing efforts are used to obtain personal information including credit card data, Social Security number to make fraudulent purchases or conduct identity theft. The crucial step is to verify the legitimacy of the offer. Never use contact information provided in the offer. Identify the employer involved or bank issuing the credit card and verify the offer using known information.

A third area of focus today involves travel and entertainment opportunities. Beware of deep discount offers that appear on web sites such as Craigslist or in social media. Victims in these scams are trying to make last minute travel arrangements or looking for discounted event tickets to popular events. Frequently the seller poses as a distressed ticket holder who cannot use the tickets and needs to sell them "at a loss." The sense of urgency or greed on the part of the buyer plays well for the scammer. The tickets are often forgeries or do not exist at all. They can only be sent after prepayment and result for both situations is identical. The buyer loses the money paid and has no legal recourse.

A variation of this scam sees the seller make the transaction and then redeem, use, or obtain a refund before the buyer can act (this has happened to buyers of tickets from resellers such as StubHub where tickets are sold on-line and also at the event venue). While purchases through these agencies may be insured, most victims suffer financial loss and great inconvenience. In many of these "needy" situations, there are legitimate third-party vendors to contact but expect higher costs and fees, not deep discounts.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator who serves as the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network Coordinator. He can be contacted at egreenblott@aarp.org.

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