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Five Online Scams That Could Steal Your Joy

Cyber criminals are always hard at work this time of year. They’re corrupting e-cards with viruses, creating fake online auctions, imitating charity sites—all to take advantage of your holiday habits, says Alison Southwick of the Better Business Bureau.

Each year, scammers use the season of giving to devise new schemes—that rely on tried-and-true tactics—to steal your money and personal information, warns Dave Marcus, director of security research for McAfee Inc., a leading security technology company.

Here are five major holiday scams to look out for this season and tips on protecting yourself.

1. Quizzes, Polls, and Contests
The promise of something for nothing is a classic ploy of online crooks. One typical scam promises that the first twenty thousand responders will receive $1,000 gift cards to a popular electronics store if they “Like” the store on Facebook. Clicking the link takes you to a bogus page that asks for numerous personal details, which can be used for identity theft. And, of course, there are no gift cards.

To protect yourself: Ignore such offers or go directly to a company’s Facebook page or website to verify if these offers are legit.

2. Auctions and Deals Too Good to Be True
Shopping on eBay and other auction sites can be a great way to save money, but the deals may be too good to be true—especially if the seller wants you to wire money in advance.

To protect yourself: Remember the old saying: “If the deal’s too good to be true, it probably is.” USAA members have made insurance claims on damaged jewelry and sent it in for repair, only to have USAA gemologists discover it’s not what the member thought they owned. “We had one disappointed member learn that a semi-precious stone she had purchased was actually glass,” says Russell Schulze, USAA claims replacement manager.

Before considering any deal, Southwick says, check the seller’s ratings and reviews on the selling site. Be extra cautious: Some fraudulent sites may even imitate a Better Business Bureau seal to throw you off. You can verify BBB-approval at And whatever you do, never pay by wire transfer, a surefire indication of a fraudulent sale.

3. Phony Charities
Scammers take advantage of your good nature and generosity by asking for donations via a website or text message, particularly after a natural disaster (such as the earthquake in Haiti) or during the holidays.

To protect yourself: Check that a charity is legitimate at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance or the American Institute of Philanthropy. You can always donate directly via a charity’s website, too.

4. Malware-Ridden Holiday Cards and Programs
Animated greetings, seasonal screensavers, and winter-themed games become popular this time of year. Sadly, many of these programs are accompanied by spyware and other malicious technology.

To protect yourself: A good anti-malware product—try McAfee, Norton, Kaspersky, or Avira—will stop virtually all of this stuff in its tracks. But your best bet is simply to not open any e-mail—even from a loved one—that contains a forwarded greeting card or holiday game. Get extra protection by ensuring your computer software updates are downloaded and applied automatically.

5. Vacation Homes Not Really for Rent
This up-and-coming scam is surprisingly simple: fraudsters set up a “vacation rental” site for a real home (complete with photos), and they rent it out for weekend and holiday getaways. The problem: the scammer doesn’t own the house, and it’s not actually for rent, much to the surprise of both owner and renter come arrival day.

To protect yourself: Use trusted travel sites and rental agencies when booking. Low-resolution photos of the home and super-low rental prices are also a giveaway that something is fishy, says Marcus.

Originally published on USAA