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'Tis the Larceny Season

Beware of online holiday scammers as technology makes it easy for thieves to lay their traps

Illlustration: Lyman Dally

With the average American planning to drop over $1,000 this holiday season, 45 percent shopping online and 71 percent paying with debit or credit cards, there’s just one group salivating more than retailers: con artists. “Scams are a concern 365 days a year,” said Carrie Hurt, CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, “but we know to expect a surge in December.” One reason for that surge: The technology that’s made online shopping easy has done the same facilitating for scammers. So just what sorts of traps lay in wait for the unsuspecting, carol-humming consumer to click on? Below, according to security experts, are five of the more creative ways shoppers will get fleeced this year.

Charity Charlatans
“More and more year-end donations are being made online,” the BBB’s Hurt observed. But many of these “charities” aren’t out to eliminate poverty—just bank balances. Don’t fall for teary-eyed tales, Hurt warned, and investigate all purported “non profits” at give.org first.

Duped on Delivery
Joe Consumer gets an email telling him an attempt was made to deliver a holiday gift when he wasn’t home. But rescheduling’s easy! Just call this (809) number—which turns out to be a pricey international toll call.

Gift Card Graft
Ever see those racks of gift cards at the local pharmacy? So do scam artists, who’ve copied down all the serial numbers. The crooks chill out a few weeks before calling the 800 number to check if the cards have been activated, then head online to shop.

Greetings From Hell
As Jamie May, chief investigator for identity-theft protection firm AllClear ID, explains, “At this time of year, everybody gets a warm fuzzy when they receive an e-card.” Yep—and that’s just where the trouble starts. A split second after the flattered recipient clicks on a link to view the card, she’s just let all sorts of nasty little elves into her computer—viruses, Trojans, spyware. Before she knows it, the card sender will have taken over her identity and bought first-class plane tickets to Rio. The solution, unforch, is to get out of the holiday spirit: “We tell people to be suspicious,” May said

The Social Media Sting
A new riff on phishing, the scammer takes over a social media account so the message looks like it’s coming from a friend. Next, using a hook that’s too good to be true (“Check out where I got 50% off a new iPad!”), the scammer lures his shill to a fake e-tailer page to be relieved of his credit card information. McAfee online security expert Robert Siciliano said it’s the social context (we’re all “friends,” no?) that prompts buyers to let their guard down: “It spreads like a virus and it’s scary—scary and brilliant.”

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