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13 ways to leave scammers empty-handed this holiday season

Posted at 3:01 PM, Nov 12, 2020

We’re primed to get suckered this holiday season. Tight budgets, wishful thinking that we can get a screaming deal if we hurry, and plain old impulsive spending are a dangerous mix. Scammers know this.

One example: Clicking an online ad, maybe for an ornament featuring a Santa with twinkling eyes and a smile hidden under a cloth mask, may put you at risk for identity theft — or maybe just for a bad deal.

Kathy Stokes, AARP’s director of fraud prevention programs, says she once bought “the funniest T-shirt from a Facebook ad. It never came.” That was before Stokes began working in fraud prevention.

So how do we prepare for battle? Three ways: Protect our mobile devices, recognize and avoid risks, and guard against identity theft.

Make your mobile device safer
Your device is only as safe as you make it. Avoiding free Wi-Fi at coffee shops and other public places is a good first step, but also:

1. Secure devices with a difficult-to-guess password and/or biometrics. If you can use a fingerprint or facial recognition to sign in, that’s best. If two-factor authentication is available, use it.

2. Heed notifications to update your software. Many times, updates improve security. This is true whether it’s your operating system, virus protection or an app.

3. Use a virtual private network. A VPN gives you an encrypted “tunnel” when you use public Wi-Fi. Protecting a device isn’t expensive — you can protect several devices for less than $10 a month. There are also free VPNs offered online. But Adam Levin, the author of “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves,” recommends sticking with the ones that charge, because of the risk that free ones will collect your data. Failing that, he recommends using your phone as a hot spot or using your provider’s closed cellular network.

Be careful when shopping online

Stokes and Levin agree that using a credit card is essential when shopping online. A debit card withdraws your money immediately. But you can dispute a credit card charge and not have to pay while it’s being investigated.

Slow down and be careful. Stokes says duplicated or spoofed websites can take advantage “when you get a text or you get an email and you get excited because it’s this thing you really wanted to buy and you can get it really cheap — and you just click and go and you don’t look for any red flags.”

Other safeguards:

4. Use a virtual wallet if the site allows it. Card numbers are encrypted, meaning your actual card number is not shared when you make a purchase.

5. Go to the source. Don’t click on ads on social media or even in texts or emails. Some are scams. If the retailer is new to you, Stokes recommends checking carefully for contact information and for return and refund policies.

6. Be cautious. When going to a site, type the URL carefully, then double-check, advises Levin. “Typo-squatters” have sites that are almost indistinguishable from the real ones.

7. Don’t open attachments. The exception is if you are expecting an attachment from someone you know. Spoofing is sophisticated; the sender may not be who you think it is.

8. Use retailer apps. Your payment information is better protected that way. If you regularly buy from a particular retailer — or will this holiday season — go ahead and download the app, Stokes advises.

9. Use strong passwords. Using a password manager app can set complex passwords and remember them for you. If a retailer website offers to store your payment information, decline. The less information you rely on others to protect, the better.

Guard against identity theft

Holidays are big for identity thieves because criminals “are geniuses when it comes to taking a situation and radically turning it to their benefit,” says Levin, who is also the founder of CyberScout, a company that offers identity protection and fraud resolution services.

Add to that the loneliness of the pandemic. “People are desperate to get a phone call from anyone,” Levin says, and may be more willing to talk.

Protect yourself from identity theft with these tips:

10. Don’t give your card number if you get a call or email to “confirm a purchase.” Real credit card issuers do not need it. If you think a retailer might be trying to contact you, initiate the call or send the email using contact information that you look up yourself.

11. Don’t respond to an email “double-checking your address” for a package delivery. That may be a scam, Levin says.

12. Sign up for text alerts when your credit card is used. Levin advises setting the purchase amount very low; identity thieves may test a stolen card number with small purchases.

13. Check to see if you have free or discounted ID theft insurance available. You can’t entirely eliminate your risk, and it’s easier to recover from identity theft with help. An organization you belong to, your employer or your insurer may offer free or deeply discounted protection. Failing that, you can consider buying some.

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Bev O’Shea is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.