Shoppers beware - 'Tis the season for fraud

 James Marasco, The Daily Record Newswire


As the holiday shopping frenzy is upon us, Americans rush to the stores and snatch up deals on the Internet. In our haste to attain the perfect item or score the best price, we sometimes let our guard down. Thieves prey on unassuming victims this time of the year. Don’t help fill their stocking. Safeguard yourself from becoming the next holiday victim.

Shopping at the brick and mortar stores

For many it’s become a ritual — grab your friend or family member and head out to the mall to whittle down that shopping list. From the time you arrive, you may be watched. Consider these safeguards:

• Don’t leave valuables or a significant amount of purchases in your vehicle. Thieves watch for those making trips to their vehicle to unload their purchases. They also scan your vehicle for purses or cellphones in plain view. Try to park in well-lit areas or in those where people frequently pass. And of course, lock your doors and set an alarm if your vehicle is equipped.

• As you walk through the crowded stores and malls, don’t leave your cellphones or wallets exposed or in back pockets. Use inside coat or front pockets where it’s more challenging for someone to lift these items unnoticed. For those carrying purses, keep them closed and secured. Don’t leave them unattended in shopping carts and carry only what’s needed. Don’t travel with your Social Security card, passport or other items that won’t be required for this particular trip.

• Don’t leave your purchases or other personal items unattended in dressing rooms and inspect what you’re purchasing. If the box looks opened, have a clerk inspect it with you to ensure everything is intact. When purchasing clothes, check the garment closely for stains, rips, tears or shoddy stitching.

• If you’re using a credit card to make a purchase, don’t let it out of your sight. Clerks or wait staff have been known to carry card readers which swipe your card as soon as they’re out of your sight processing your transaction. Afterward, the card numbers are sold or used for illicit purposes. Insist on keeping eye contact with your card and don’t flash it around so the people around you can snap a quick photo or memorize your numbers.

• If you carry a Radio Frequency (RFID) type of credit card, take precautions. Radio frequency cards are not swiped but passed over the payment terminal. Your card has this capability if it contains the 3 half circle emblems on it. This technology also has made it vulnerable to data thieves who carry small hand-held scanners in crowds and are able to read unencrypted cards through purses and wallets. These card numbers are later sold or used illegally. You can purchase  sleeves for your cards that blocks it from being read without your knowledge.

• Keep your receipts! Some retailers won’t let you return the items or refund you if you don’t have the receipt, or they will offer you the lowest price they charged during the past few months. In addition, if you charged the item, check it against your credit card statement to ensure it was processed correctly.

• Be weary of seasonal vendors who set up temporary operations. You may not have the ability to return any merchandise after the holiday season when they disappear. In addition, if paying by credit card, make sure they use modern technology to safeguard your information. If they are using hand swipe card systems with carbon paper, you may want to pay in cash.

• While walking in public, disable your cellphone’s Bluetooth capability. Data thieves thrive on open devices where they gain access to your device and harvest your online banking, contacts and other confidential information.

• Before you donate to anyone asking, make sure they represent a reputable group and properly identify themselves as a member or representative of that group. It’s advisable to pay anything larger than pocket change by check.

• If you like to shop alone and later in the evening, make sure you’re not being followed as you leave the stores and keep your keys and cellphone accessible as you leave the store.

Shopping on the Internet

If the stores or malls aren’t your thing and you’ve decided to give online shopping a chance, you should take some precautions.

• Assuming your shopping is being conducted from home, ensure your network is secure and your computer is equipped with antivirus software.

• Shop at trusted sites. If you desire something on a site you’re not familiar with, check to see if someone has suffered any bad experiences. Sites like or can be used in your research. Read through the return policies and the associated costs to return items. In addition to incurring shipping costs, some vendors may charge a restocking fee.

• Consider paying by PayPal or another reputable type of service that processes your transaction and offers a layer of security buffering you from the online retailer. If you use a credit card, consider using one exclusively for online purposes or closely monitor the activity on it so you can be alerted sooner than later for illicit activity. Although it’s tempting, don’t elect to save your payment information on sites. Enter it each time you shop on the site.

• Watch out for hidden costs! Many people expect shipping and sales tax to be thrown in for free and don’t consider these costs when comparing against the local retailers. As a result of disputes and negotiated settlements, sites like Amazon are now charging sales tax in many states. Standard shipping may be advertised as free on some sites; however, their default option may cost you. Watch the final amount being charged and don’t click final until you feel comfortable with what you’re being charged.

Stay vigilant

By heeding a few of these warnings, you’ll safeguard yourself from becoming another crime statistic and have one less thing to worry about during the holiday season.