Happy Holidays from Scams Inc – Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

This Christmas, we at Scams Inc wanted to share with you, our readers and friends, a story that we feel embodies the true spirit of the season. The story of a little girl and a seasoned newspaper man, and their unlikely correspondence. Enjoy and have a Happy Holiday!

Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’sSun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

“VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
“115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.”

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

View the original article, as posted in the New York Sun in 1897

VALENTINE’S DAY SCAMS – FROM YOUR HEART TO THE SCAMMERS BILLFOLD

The 14th day of February. Valentine’s Day. Romantics view the day as a chance to shower their soul mate with love. Sweet words, sentimental cards, elaborate gifts and restaurant reservations are employed by both the committed and those looking to make a love connection. Cynics view it as another example of our over-commercialized society hijacking something that should be expressed much more often and freely.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of scam artists who view Valentine’s Day as just another opportunity to fleece those who are willing to open up their hearts and wallets.

If you plan on celebrating Valentine’s Day this year, here are a few popular scams you’d be wise to be aware of:
FAKE VALENTINE ECARDS – You’ve probably gotten one of these in the past. As our time online has increased through the years, so too has there been an explosion in online greeting cards. These electronic greetings contain text, images, and even customizable movies; they are being swapped between friends, family members and business associates.

The con artists love to exploit emerging trends, and Valentine’s Day is prime territory.

Most electronic greeting cards will arrive via an email informing you that you have a card waiting at greeting card site. A link will be provided for you for that site, and when clicked it will send you to the waiting card. But if you click, beware. You might be getting much more than a seasonal greeting.

The Valentine’s card might appear amusing at first, but the laughter won’t last long. The ecard scam cons victims by placing a malicious link in the email. When clicked, it sends the users browser to an exploitive server. After guaranteeing the potential victim doesn’t have the proper patches in the browsing software, the scammers forcibly load a rootkit and a keystroke logger. Then the victim is sent to the legitimate-appearing greeting card.

A rootkit is software which obscures the fact that your computer has been compromised. Keystroke software is exactly what it sounds like, a way the scammer’s can record every keystroke you make and then divine from the information every user name, password, credit card number, bank account number, social security number or any personal information you enter. If you type it, they now have access to it.

On the user’s end, nothing appears out of the ordinary. An email arrived asking them to check out a Valentine’s Day greeting, they clicked on the link, noticed it wasn’t actually sent by someone they recognized and then closed the card without realizing their identity and financial information was at risk.

Many of these initial emails will be vague, almost coy. A “business associate”, or “family member”, or “close friend” has sent you a Valentine and it can be easily accessed by clicking on the provided link. Never click through on emails from unidentified sources.

Even if it comes from a known person, be wary. Your friend or relative might have been the victim of a virus. They opened the card, had the malware unknowingly loaded, then the virus re-sent the bait to everyone in their address book. It would be wise to go directly to the publishing site the card is supposed to have come from and access it there. Otherwise, contact the sender and make sure they sent the card out. If they were the victim of a self-sustaining virus, they might not even realize the fake cards have been sent in their name.

FLOWER FRAUD – Be careful when ordering flowers online. There are numerous websites which claim to be local florists offering great deals, but in reality they are call centers who will see to it that most of the money you spend goes directly into their own pocket.

Many of these companies advertise on Google under such names as Flowershopers.com or Petalsforless.com and the like. They claim to be located in whatever area you are looking to have flowers delivered. This is a blatant falsehood. What you are getting is a call center with only one location.

You place your order with this call center. You see pictures of the flower arrangement online, or hear a description of what you are purchasing over the phone. You want spend $100, included in which is a reasonable-sounding $12.50 shipping and delivery fee. You feel satisfied with the purchase. Don’t expect the flowers you ordered to necessarily be what shows up on the doorstep.

There is another hidden fee, called a relay fee. The company you are calling is simply going to contact a local florist in the area you are having flowers delivered and place the order for you. They are going to take this “relay fee’ out of the money you intended to spend on an arrangement and forward it directly to their bank account. All the while counting on the fact you won’t actually see what the final arrangement looks like. Instead of the $100 you thought was being spent on the flowers, only $70-60 is actually used, the rest being pocketed by the shady company. This can result in a significantly different floral arrangement than what the customer is led to believe they are purchasing.

When ordering flowers, stick to the big boys, well-known companies with a long track-record of satisfied customers, or consider locating a local florist and order from the store directly after confirming they are physically located in the town where you are having the flowers sent.

PHISHING SCAMS – Valentine’s Day is a popular time for phishing scams because of the high volume of online orders. The scammers send out phony emails with bogus claims that the flowers, candy or cards you sent are being held for deliver. A link is provided which directs the victim to a legitimate-looking website where they are asked to enter in their credit card information for verification before the items in question are released for delivery.

These mass spam emails are often sent blindly, and you can easily recognize them if you haven’t actually placed an order. But their intended targets are those victims who maybe aren’t used to ordering online, and have done so especially for Valentine’s Day. These newbies are much more likely to fall for this type of scam.

If you get this email, never use the link without first calling the seller, florist or company in question on the telephone and verifying if there is any issue. If it looks sketchy, it probably is a scam.

JEWELRY – Starting in the 80’s, the diamond industry began promoting Valentine’s Day as a perfect time to give your loved one jewelry. Thirty years later this has become something of a tradition for some revelers, and represents a growing opportunity for scammers.

There are ubiquitous ads these days, particularly online, offering jewelry at ridiculous prices. “$10,000 diamonds for $500.” Don’t fall for the hype. These ads really proliferate around Valentine’s Day when the market for jewelry is particularly hot.

It’s an easy scam to sell worthless goods to uneducated customers. Doing business electronically makes it even easier. The photos might look great, but chances are you aren’t getting a real diamond, and that gold is probably not 24 karats.

When purchasing jewelry it is always best to do so in person. Buy from someone respected, preferably with bone fide recommendations. Always make these purchases with a credit card; this is your best chance for refuting the charge and getting your money back.
These are just a few of the scams to look out for this Valentine’s Day. Be alert, be smart, and think things through. Make sure the person you are making the happiest on this holiday is the one you love – not some pathetic scam artist who’s wallet you helped fill.

AIR TRAVEL BLUES – BRAVING THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES

Although the tough economy has driven the number of air travelers toward a downward trend, the numbers will spike over the next month as those with holiday travel plans head to the airports to face the inevitable crowds. While we all find ways to tighten the purse strings and spend less this holiday season, it might be wise to hold on to your wallets a little tighter while flying this year. As always there are those looking to make an easy buck off of holiday travelers, a number that include con artists as well as the airlines themselves.

Here are some things to keep in mind when flying this holiday season.

AIRLINE CONSOLIDATOR SCAM
The con artists include an emerging trend of airline consolidator scams. In an attempt to save money on air travel many have found a great resource by booking their tickets through airline consolidators. These companies buy discounted tickets in bulk from the airlines then resell them at a savings to the consumer.

This can be a great savings – if you have an honest-to-goodness airline consolidator. There are also a number of scam artists passing themselves off as consolidators. Victims don’t even realize they’ve spent their cash on bogus and fraudulent tickets until they get to the airport. At that point they are out the money spent, and probably looking at a difficult time finding any available last-minute flights.

A little due diligence can go a long way towards not being taken by these crooks. Before buying a ticket research the company from whom you are planning to purchase a ticket. Get their full address. If they won’t or can’t provide it, you’re probably dealing with a scam. Once you have the address, visit the Secretary of State for the state the company is located in. They should have a business search engine. If they don’t show up they aren’t registered and you shouldn’t buy.

Read the fine print. If the ticket is nonrefundable, try another consolidator.

STAY ALERT AT CHECKPOINTS
There has been a rise in complaints of stolen and lost property at airport checkpoints. Don’t be fooled into thinking just because you are surrounded by security personnel that your belongings are actually secure.

Often times it can be a crime of opportunity. Someone decides to lift a laptop or ipod which is sitting exposed having already been through the x-ray machine while its owner is held up at the metal detector. Of course, it is known that two-person gangs often operate a similar scam. One will go through the metal detector and wait as their partner, next in line, keeps setting off the metal detector. Meanwhile, passengers continue to put their goods through the x-ray machine, while the first guy through the line has time to pick through whatever is coming through.

If it sounds like a crime that would be easily rectified, consider the mob like crowds at the airports in the holiday. Security guards main concern is getting folks through the TSA checkpoints and on the planes. By the time they are able to investigate a stolen item claim, the thief is likely already in the air.

Even worse, you might not even realize you’ve been stolen from until far too late. Lynne Berry shared a story on Today’s MSNBC Family Blog about an acquaintance who suffered this fate. She boarded the plane and opened her duffel to grab her purse, where she had stuffed it just before going through security. Her purse was gone. The only time the duffel was not in her possession was when she was held up at the metal detector and it had passed through the x-ray machine.

She was at the beginning of a five hour flight and feeling helpless about her situation. The airline was helpful, calling the airport she had left from and alerting them. The purse was found in a bathroom, but the traveler found herself landing in a city where she had limited contacts without any ID or credit cards, unable to pick up her rental car and having to survive by trial and error as she navigated the loss of her wallet while in an unfamiliar city. That would make for an unpleasant travel experience, especially on the holidays.

BEWARE OF AIRLINES
They get us to where we need to go, but first and foremost they are a business, a big business, and look to take a little extra out of their customers’ wallets at every chance they get.

Take for example Continental’s Bereavement Fares. The “reduced” fares are listed online, but come with a caveat – they can only be booked by the telephone. What one traveler discovered and wrote an illuminating post about on the website Urban Semiotic, is that often times, you can actually book a cheaper fare online. After being quoted a bereavement discount price that was higher than the online fare he was looking at while on the phone, he asked the operator why there was a discrepancy. He was met with silence. The operator finally spoke up and told him he wasn’t supposed to look at those online, he was supposed to call for a bereavement fare. He said he got that, but inquired why they would offer a bereavement “discount” that was higher than a fare he could book himself. The operator could only lamely answer that the bereavement fare structure was different from online booking.

When booking online though, the price you are quoted is often not the price you end up paying. There are so many hidden fees, you might book a flight at $450, then end up paying over $500 due to the after-the-fact fee structure. Going with the $475 ticket from a different airline might actually have saved you money in the long run, depending on how they hit you with fees.

The checked baggage fee was implemented at a time the fuel prices were surging and the airlines had an easy scapegoat to blame them on. Fuel prices have since dropped, but the checked baggage fees stay. There is no set fee schedule for checked baggage fees, with every airline marching to the beat of their own drummer. A few, Southwest Airlines for example, don’t charge a fee at all. Some are based on number, and almost all will hit you with large, $50-$75 charges for baggage that is not within their weight guidelines. So be sure to measure before you get to the airport.

Pay attention to the counter agents too. One traveler posted a bad experience on My3cents.com where he was charged $39 for an oversized bag that was measured improperly. The agent said the bag was within the acceptable weight range, but measured over 63 inches and was therefore considered “over-sized”. The customer knew the bag was under 62 inches tall, having measured it himself and also flying with it dozens of times previously without incident. As he watched the agent measure the bag a second time, he noticed they were standing the bag up to the edge of the scale, and then measuring from one wall of the scale to the other, adding 1-3 inches to any bag being tested. The traveler had no luck talking to the manager, it was company policy. He paid the fee and flew on. Two days later he flew a different carrier without incident.

There are so many other, unheralded, hidden airline fees it just about boggles the mind.

Charging anywhere from $5-$20 to make reservations over the phone or at the ticket counter.

Charging $5-$15 for a seat assignment. A fee that goes up to $15-$20 at some airlines if you request an exit row seat.

Charging $10 for a child to sit your lap.

Charging $25-$50 if you want to move your flight up on the same day and try stand by.

Charging for meals, headphones, and at this point some carriers are even hitting passengers up for pillows and blankets. How much longer before pay toilets are installed?

There is a way to know what you are getting going in though. New software is making it possible to comparison shop different flights with the possible fees you might incur included in your estimates. This gives you a truer picture of how much each potential flight will run before you actually book it.

Flying is expensive enough without being taken advantage of by con artists and money-grubbing airlines. So stay on your guard, both when you are booking your flight and when you actually travel and the skies will be a much friendly means of transportation.

**Note: For extensive fee listings and comparison shopping the following site is a great resource: flyingfees.com

MORE HOLIDAY SCAMS – WHILE YOU GIVE, THE SCAMMERS TAKE

The holiday season is officially in full swing. In addition to the decorations, caroling and roasting chestnuts on an open fire, we have a whole new set of seasonal scams to keep us on our toes.

The scammers know this is the time of year where the wallets open and the money flows, so they will go to great lengths that they knee-deep in that revenue stream somewhere along the line. Whether its phony charities, bogus gift cards or malicious holiday software, these con artists will go to any means, including seemingly embracing the spirit of the season, in order to line their pockets with stolen money and goods.

Here are a few of things to look out for:

FAKE GIFT CARDS

Gift cards a popular item. Customers spend billions of dollars on them specifically in the holiday season. Their popularity is growing even more with the increase and ease of online shopping. When you aren’t sure what to get someone, it seems like the perfect gift, a card that allows them to spend a set amount with a retailer you know they will like. Some of these cards, though, are a hot target for scammers.

At many locations, these cards can be bought from free-standing racks in the front of the store. On each rack you have a myriad of retailers and service providers offering cards. Some come in pre-set denominations, others are open ended. With any of these cards, you will take them to the front and either purchase them outright, or have an amount put on the card that you are looking to gift.

The card is often activated by the teller at the time of purchase. Some cards can be activated later either online and/or by telephone. The crooks have found a way to steal these potential gifts right from under our noses.
They write down the card numbers while still on the rack, and then continually check, either by phone or online, to see if the cards have been activated. Because most of these cards are designed to be used for CNP, or Card Not Present, purchases, the scammers need only have them activated before the spending spree begins. Once the funds are available, the cons spend however much they can before the actual card’s holder has the chance to exhaust it.

In order to fight this fraud, many businesses now include PIN numbers that must be used for all CNP Purchases, and which is hidden below a scratch-off surface. The thieves will scratch these off, noting the pins, and place them back in their cardboard holders so it goes unnoticed until after the card is purchased and/or activated.

If you are purchasing a gift card, always exam both sides of the card carefully for signs of defacement or scratching off of the surface protecting the PIN number, even if that requires removing the card from the packaging.
Besides the in-store racks, these gift cards are often found as items being sold via online auction sites. Be very wary of purchasing cards from these sites, especially if advertised at a reduced price than the balance of the card. Often these cards are fakes. Other times they have been stolen from the stores and, having been reported as such, have been deactivated and will be worthless. Either way, you lose the money spent.

FAKE HOLIDAY ECARDS

The last few years have seen in explosion in online greeting cards being swapped between friends, family members and business associates. Like all things popular, the con artists smell the chance to make a buck off of those not quite up-to-date on how this new technology works. As with the fake ecards making the rounds on Thanksgiving, holiday cards celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas and the season in general will be prime territory for scammers.

Most electronic greeting cards arrive via an email informing you that you have a card waiting at such-and-such a site. A link will be provided for you, and once you click on the link you will be sent to the waiting card. But if you click, beware. You might be getting much more than a seasonal greeting.

You might be sent to what appears to be a genuine Christmas Day card. An elf dances a jig, or Santa golfs in the Florida sun, but the laughter won’t last long. The ecard scams con folks by placing a malicious link in the email. When clicked, it sends the users browser to an exploitive server. After guaranteeing the potential victim doesn’t have the proper patches in the browsing software, the scammers forcibly load a rootkit and a keystroke logger. Then the victim is sent to the legitimate-appearing greeting card.

A rootkit is software which obscures the fact that your computer has been compromised. Keystroke software is exactly what it sounds like, a way the scammer’s can record every keystroke you make and then divine from the information every user name, password, credit card number, bank account number, social security number or any personal information you enter. If you type it, they now have access to it.

On the user’s end, nothing appears out of the ordinary. They got an email asking them to check out a Holiday card, they clicked on the link, noticed it didn’t actually come from anyone they know and then closed it without realizing their identity and financial information was at risk.

Many of these initial emails will be vague. A “business associate”, or “family member”, or “close friend” has sent you a Christmas/Hanukkah card and you can access it by clicking on the provided link. Never click through on emails from unidentified sources.

Even if it comes from a known person, be wary. Your friend or relative might have been the victim of a virus. They opened the card, had the malware unknowingly loaded, then the virus re-sent the bait to everyone in their address book. It would be wise to go directly to the publishing site the card is supposed to have come from and access it there. Otherwise, contact the sender and make sure they sent the card out. If they were the victim of a self-sustaining virus, they might not even realize the fake cards have been sent in their name.

FAKE CHARITY EMAIL SCAMS

This is a classic ruse, made even easier to pull off by our new plugged-in, internet society. It often starts with an email from a charitable organization. But check out the name carefully.

The Better Business Bureau has recently reported on an alarming number of copy-cat charities. They have names that are suspiciously similar to their more familiar counterparts – GrantAWish instead of MakeAWish, or the National Red Cross as opposed to the American Red Cross. They might share a similar name, but chances are good the only charity getting your contributions is the con artists’ bank accounts.

Even worse than spending the “donated” money on themselves, if you pay with a credit card the fraudster has that information as well. If you get one of these emails, do not click on the links. If you are interested, close the message, and then research the company name independently. It will quickly become obvious whether or not they are legitimate.
SHIPPING SCAM

A new scam involves the victim receiving an email from someone claiming to be a representative of a shipping company like Fed Ex or UPS. They say there has been a gift shipped to you, but the required shipping charges must be paid before it can be delivered.

It’s another ruse to get money from you outright, and access to your credit card information to boot. No shipping company is going to have your email address, and they aren’t going to ask the recipient for payment out of the blue. If you have any questions about a suspicious email, contact the shipping company directly. They will be able to tell you straight off whether or not there is a waiting package.

These are only a few of the ways scammers will look to increase their holiday cheer by stealing money right out of your pocket. Let’s make sure the con artists stockings stay empty this year by staying alert this holiday season.

Holiday Shopping – Protect Yourself and Your Bank Account

The holiday season is an often chaotic and stressful time. People are rushing out to shop, spending their money more freely than probably any other time of year, trying to get their hands on great gifts and deals, giving to charity, and generally being caught up in the excitement of the season. This excitement often leads to disctraction, which could make you a target for any of the many holiday-related scams and schemes out there.

First of all, there is the “high-pressure sale”, which is perfectly legal, but can still lead to foolish decisions and regrets. We’ve all been pressured by a salesperson before, with phrases like “If you’re buying these curtains, you really need the matching area rug. There’s only one left, and we probably won’t restock it”, and “You need this shampoo and conditioner to keep the color in your hair, I’ll add it to your bill”. Now, in your normal, everyday shopping you would probably have the sense to politely refuse these things if you didn’t feel that you needed them, or felt you couldn’t afford them. Around the holidays though, especially if the things we’re buying are gifts, we may get suckered in to buying extra or unnecessary items after a few convincing or urgent words from a salesperson. Watch out for these high-pressure sales that will warn you that “there is only one left” or offer you “a special deal”. Try to stick to what you originally planned to buy and not fall into these traps that will convince you that you need more – your bank balance will thank you! Also, keep in mind that around the holidays, everyone wants more money, and many salespeople work on commission, so don’t be so sure that they have your best interests in mind when trying to give you that “great deal”.

This time of year, malls and stores are crowded with busy shoppers. You’re probably busy juggling several shopping bags, plus personal items like a purse, wallet, keys, etc. You are also probably paying more attention to your shopping list than you are to the people around you. It’s easy to get flustered and overwhelmed as you plod through the stores and try to get in and out as quickly as possible. What you should do, is take your time and pay attention. It’s very easy to lose track of your items. Maybe you set your bags down so you could look at something on a sale’s rack, or put your wallet or cell phone on the table while catching a quick bite to eat at the food court. All it takes is a few minutes for these items to be lost or stolen by opportunistic thieves just waiting for all the distracted busy people, who may neglect their personal items, or who may not realize that one of their shopping bags has gone missing. Help yourself out by making regular trips to your car to drop off the excess baggage – put your bags in the truck where they’ll be locked up out of sight, and then go back for more. Not only will that reduce the chance of losing track of things, but it’ll make you more comfortable too. Keep your personal items like your wallet, keys, and cell phone safe by keeping them in a closed purse, or in a front pocket. Remember that old-fashioned pick-pockets can be lurking in these crowds too, and with a little slight of hand, can easily help themselves to anything in your back pocket or in an open purse. In a busy mall, you may not think twice about someone bumping into you until you realize you’re missing something, and by then, it will likely be too late to know who took it. Be alert when you brave the stores and malls this season and watch out for the unexpected!

You may think that doing your holiday shopping online is the safer, less stressful bet, and it’s true that it can be, but the internet is fraught with scams and cons. There are countless internet scams out there, but one that online buyers should be especially wary of this time of year is online auction scams. Maybe you’ll come across someone selling this year’s hottest, must-have toy or accesory and decide that you need to have it. You get caught up in a bidding war and end up paying way more than you wanted to in order to beat out the competition. Feeling smug about your winning bid, you wait for your item to arrive. When it does however, it isn’t what you expected. Maybe it’s an older version of what you thought you were getting, or a designer jacket that turned out to be for a doll instead of a person. Even worse, it could not arrive at all. The trouble with online auction sites is that many of the sellers are simply individuals that you do not know – not any sort of reputable retailer or business. When buying online, stick to trusted sites and companies and avoid dealing with any one person.

Another very popular holiday scam is the “Name a Star” scam. You may have even seen commercials on tv advertising these sorts of scams. They will lure you in with a line like “What could be more special than naming a star after your beloved?” You can then pay up to $150 to “name a star”, and the company will send you a certificate showing the coordinates of your newly named star, and promise that it will be entered into a “star registry”. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Well, the main problem with this “gift” is that stars are named by the International Astronomical Union, and these names (which are usually numbers) are assigned based on IAU internationally accepted rules. Adding your star to a “registry” means adding it to a made up registry that is not in any way recognized by astronomers, which means there won’t be any scientific data published about that “Grandma Edith” star you “named”, because the entire thing is bogus. The IAU’s website says, “”such ‘names’ have no formal or official validity whatever. Like true love and many of the other best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy.” Save your money and print your own star-naming certificate, because it means just as much as going through one of these companies, and costs a lot less.

These are just a few things to watch out for as the holiday season swings into full gear. It may be a crazy and stressful time of year, but don’t let it become more costly than it needs to be. Stay alert, stay smart, and try to keep things simple. Instead of getting carried away, celebrate the true spirit of the season with togetherness, warm wishes, and holiday peace.

Thanksgiving Scams

The holidays are almost upon us. Next week, many will be sitting down with their families to enjoy turkey, football and celebrate all that they are thankful for in their lives. Sadly, some of these folks will be less thankful after the holiday weekend having been victimized by scam artists who chose not to take the weekend off.

When folks are in the holiday spirit, they often let their guard down; here are a couple of ways con artists will be looking to take advantage of this holiday good cheer:

BOGUS COLLECTION SCAMS – Be wary of those individuals who approach folks individually to collect donations for the less fortunate. Often times, these can be con artists making an easy buck off your sympathy.

In fact, police in Northern Indiana recently released an alert for residents to be on the lookout for two men pulling this exact type of scam. They are dressed as police officers. Going door-to-door, the uniformed men claim to be troopers from the Indiana State Police who are collecting funds to feed needy children on this upcoming Thanksgiving Day.

The police advise residents who are approached either on the street or visited at home by those soliciting similar funds to ask for contact information and then thoroughly research the organization before making any donations.

Excellent advice for everyone, as this isn’t a problem localized in Northern Indiana. Remember, any legitimate organization’s representatives should happily agree to cooperate with requests for identification or questions about the organization for which they claim to be collecting.

FAKE THANKSGIVING ECARDS – As with all things online related, the last few years have seen in explosion in online greeting cards being swapped between friends, family members and business associates. Like most emerging trends, this is prime territory for a con artist to exploit. This Thanksgiving will be no different.

Most electronic greeting cards will arrive via an email informing you that you have a card waiting at such-and-such a site. A link will be provided for you, and once you click on the link you will be sent to the waiting card. But if you click, beware. You might be getting much more than a seasonal greeting.

You might be sent to what appears to be a genuine Thanksgiving Day card, with Tom Turkey doing his funny dance, but the laughter won’t last long. The ecard scams con folks by placing a malicious link in the email. When clicked, it sends the users browser to an exploitive server. After guaranteeing the potential victim doesn’t have the proper patches in the browsing software, the scammers forcibly load a rootkit and a keystroke logger. Then the victim is sent to the legitimate-appearing greeting card.

A rootkit is software which obscures the fact that your computer has been compromised. Keystroke software is exactly what it sounds like, a way the scammer’s can record every keystroke you make and then divine from the information every user name, password, credit card number, bank account number, social security number or any personal information you enter. If you type it, they now have access to it.

On the user’s end, nothing appears out of the ordinary. They got an email asking them to check out a Thanksgiving card, they clicked on the link, noticed it didn’t actually come from anyone they know and then closed it without realizing their identity and financial information was at risk.

Many of these initial emails will be vague, almost coy. A “business associate”, or “family member”, or “close friend” has sent you a Thanksgiving card and you can access it by clicking on the provided link. Never click through on emails from unidentified sources.

Even if it comes from a known person, be wary. Your friend or relative might have been the victim of a virus. They opened the card, had the malware unknowingly loaded, then the virus re-sent the bait to everyone in their address book. It would be wise to go directly to the publishing site the card is supposed to have come from and access it there. Otherwise, contact the sender and make sure they sent the card out. If they were the victim of a self-sustaining virus, they might not even realize the fake cards have been sent in their name.

PHONY TELEPHONE BANKING SCAM – With most banks closed on the Thursday that is Thanksgiving Day, some enterprising scam artists will take that opportunity to dupe overstuffed turkey-day revelers in their tryptophan-induced haze.

The Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA) recently warned banking customers in the region of Northern Wisconsin to be on the lookout for a telephone scam targeting Thanksgiving Day of this year. A similar con was conducted on Thanksgiving Day of 2007 in Manitowoc County. Authorities warn that it could happen anywhere.

In the Manitowoc incident, customers received calls on Thanksgiving Day informing them that their bank account was frozen and gave a toll-free number for the person to call to have the account reinstated once they had verified their information. The calls were well-timed, occurring on a day that the banks were guaranteed to be closed and also the day before the busiest retail shopping day of the year. The scam artists spoke to some 20,000 potential victims on Thanksgiving Day in 2007, indicating a large scam operation. Of those 20,000, many reported the calls immediately to the police, while still some fell for the con.

When asked to verify personal information such as bank account numbers, credit or debit card numbers, PIN numbers, or Social Security numbers, consumers should never do so immediately. Do not respond. Why would the bank need this information? Call the number on your bank statement and inquire directly.

As Erik Skrum, WBA’s communications director, elaborated in a post on the Fox Valley Savings Bank Web site, “No bank or legitimate business will request a customer to verify personal information such as PINs, bank account numbers or Social Security numbers over the phone. Unless you initiate the contact, you should never give this information out.”

When this type of request is made, whether via phone or email, WBA suggests the consumer name of the person making the request, the institution they represent, and any available contact information. The consumer is then advised to contact the institution provided, but using contact information gleaned from bank statements or similar direct means. The institution can then verify if the request is legitimate.

Make this Thanksgiving Day truly one to be thankful for by keeping your wits if faced with any of the sketchy situation as described above.

Next week, we will look into another Thanksgiving Holiday tradition, Black Friday, the official beginning of the holiday shopping season. We will look into many of the questionable tools and tricks used by retailers to separate customers from their money and offer advice on how to avoid getting scammed.