By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, firstname.lastname@example.org
Military families are a frequent target for holiday scams. With the holiday season in full swing, so are various frauds associated with it. Frauds tend to follow current events whether they are natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and tornados or seasonal events like income taxes and end-of-year holidays. Unfortunately, the holidays can bring out the worst, as well as the best, in people as thieves, both in person and online, steal victims’ money and/or identity.
Below are some common holiday scams to caution service members about:
- Beware of e-mails asking you to provide personal information to receive a package. These are often phishing schemes to obtain personal identification information (PII) to commit identity theft. Don’t click on links from unknown sources.
- Beware of “too good to be true” sales offers for relatively inexpensive high-end goods and electronics that request personal identification information. Fake retailer websites, may send shoddy merchandise or nothing at all and steal victims’ PII.
- Beware of phony web sites with “off” logos and spelling and grammar mistakes and sales offers that require wire payment.
- Use an application like Norton SafeWeb to warn you about unsafe websites.
- Look for contact information on retail websites. For example, a phone number and physical location rather than a PO box or sole e-mail address. Another indicator of a reputable retailer is a “Terms and Conditions” link for return policies.
- Beware of offers for “too good to be true” holiday season travel. The accommodations that are offered may be substandard or non-existent. Always deal with reputable travel agents and tour package providers.
- Make sure that online orders are secure by looking for https:// in the website URL of an online merchant.
- Beware of postcards for “undeliverable” packages. Some of these scams request PII or are a ploy to make expensive phone calls. For example, callers may be directed to the “hotbed” fraudulent area codes of 284, 809, and 876 in the Caribbean.
- Use a credit, instead of a debit card, for large purchases. Not only can you receive rewards, but the credit card company may be able to reverse charges for shoddy or damaged goods. With a debit card, check, or cash, your money is gone.
- Carry a minimum amount of cash, plastic, and personal information when shopping or traveling during the holidays and make sure that your wallet or purse is secure at all times and not left unattended (e.g., on the back of a chair).
- Never provide donations and/or credit card information to telephone charitable solicitations. Some are outright scams and many have such high administrative expenses that very little money actually goes to the charitable cause.
- Donate money only to charities you know that are registered with the IRS. Check their 990 form at GuideStar.
- Beware of phony charities that sound like legitimate ones (e.g., National Cancer Society instead of American Cancer Society).
- Beware of phony charities that make highly emotional appeals for disabled police, firefighters, and military veterans.
- Avoid having unattended packages left for delivery on your doorstep. Some criminals actually follow delivery trucks to steal victims’ holiday packages.
- Require a signature for package delivery. If no one is at home, request that the package be given to a trusted neighbor or held at the nearest package pick-up depot.
- Inspect gift cards before you buy them to make sure that they have not been tampered with (e.g., having the activation code scratched off). Thieves who steal these codes can often use a gift card before the rightful owner.
- Buy gift cards that are kept behind a store counter or near the cash register so clerks can keep an eye on them to discourage tampering.
- Get a gift card receipt for each gift card that you buy and include the receipt with gift cards as proof of activation and payment so recipients can obtain a replacement, if necessary.