During the holiday season

  • Published
  • By Ralph Milone
  • Signature Mangement Officer
During the holiday season, the 96th Information Protection, Signature Management Office turns its attention from protecting Team Eglin's critical information to protecting individuals so they don't fall prey to holiday shopping scams.

The holiday season always sees an increase with scam artists and swindlers who try and take advantage of people's good will and nature. They are constantly thinking of new scams to line their pockets with your money, and some are quite sophisticated. However, you can outsmart even the craftiest crook if you know what's in their bag of tricks. Here's a guide on the latest and greatest sneaky scams and some simple ways you can avoid being one of their victim's during the holiday season.

"Smishing" is the latest twist on the "phishing" scam. Instead of getting an e-mail, you get a text message. You're told to call a toll-free number, which is answered by a bogus interactive voice-response system that tries to fool you into providing your account number and password.

You can prevent yourself from falling victim to this scam by not responding to the message before you verify that it's legitimate. You can conduct a Goggle search on the number to see whether it matches your financial institution. Better yet, call the customer-service number at your financial institution to give any needed information to a representative.

Those tiny charges on your credit or debit card can be made by thieves who get ahold of them. Charges can be in the range of 20 cents to $10. The charges appear on your bill with a company name that sounds convincing and a toll-free number may appear next to the charge. When you call the number, it's either disconnected or you're instructed to leave a message and, of course, your call is never returned. Hint, scrutinize every item on your monthly bill and question those you don't recognize with your credit card company and/or financial institution in the case of debit cards.

Skimming devices used by thieves attach to ATMs or gas pumps to steal your debit account number and password. They get more sophisticated every time to outwit a customer using an ATM or gas pump. These devices are normally placed at the mouth of the card-acceptance slot and record data off of the magnetic strip on the back of your ATM card when you slide it into the machine. Thieves will plant a second device, such as a hidden camera or a transparent plastic PIN pad overlay, that's used to record your PIN when you type it in. With the use of wireless technology it can enable the devices to be rigged to send the account information via text message to the thief's cell phone.
The use of a credit card and avoiding non-bank ATMs is a good start in not becoming a victim to this scam. These machines are usually located in areas that are less secure, making it easier for thieves to tamper with them. Also, check the card slot of these devices. If there's a plastic strip or plastic film sticking out or anything glued to the card reader, go somewhere else. Lastly, if your card does get stuck in one of these machines don't leave it! Call the bank branch or their 24-hour service number to report the situation on your cell phone.

Membership programs used over the internet are other methods used by crooks to get your money. For instance, you are about to purchase an item from a reputable website but just before you click the "confirm" button on your purchase, you see a pop-up window or banner ad with an offer such as "$10 Cash Back on Your Next Purchase." The catch here is by accepting the so-called deal, you're agreeing to enroll in a web discount program that's run by a completely separate company. These programs often provide a 30-day trial period during which you get discounts on a variety of merchandise and services. However, after the trial period is over, a monthly membership fee of $10 to $20 will appear on your credit card bill even though you never gave your credit card number to that outside company.

To avoid this situation from happening to you, be wary of pop-up windows or banner ads that promise an additional discount before you complete the transaction. Additionally, check your e-mail inbox or spam folder because web loyalty programs often send a notification e-mail before they start charging your credit card when you still have time to cancel.

Have you heard about "stripped Gift Cards?" Another way the thief can get your money is by looking for gift cards that are displayed on grab-and-go racks, such as in grocery and department stores. Thieves use handheld scanners which anyone can buy online for just a few hundred dollars to read the code behind the magnetic or scratch-off strip on the back of the card. That, combined with the card number on the front, gives them everything they need to steal the value of the card. Then they put the card back on the rack. Later an unknowing buyer purchases a worthless card.

You can avoid buying one of these worthless gift cards by buying them only if they are behind a customer-service desk. Check the back of the card for the magnetic or peel-off strip to see if it is in pristine condition. Finally, if purchasing a preloaded card, ask the cashier to scan it to make sure the full value of the card is still on it.

These are just some of the sophisticated scams used by thieves and swindlers to rob you of your money especially as the holiday season approaches. However, knowing this information is half the battle in ensuring your holiday season is not spoiled by the Grinch.