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Scams - It's That Time Of Year Again

There are email scams sent throughout the year, but the holidays bring scammers out in force. You may get scam emails about online shopping or gift offers, among others. Online shopping increases this time of year, and so do the scams - it is expected that consumers will lose $3.6 billion this year.

So what can you do to protect yourself? One thing is to watch for these common holiday scams:

Phishing
Most of us have received the one addressed to "Dear Friend" from the Nigerian bank manager who needs your "confidential" help opening a U.S. account to transfer funds. Those have been around awhile now - and are still out there. But most scams are much more sophisticated now.

You may receive emails that look exactly like legitimate one from financial institutions such as the Bank of America and PayPal (eBay). Many of these say your account is about to be cancelled or is being used illegally, and they will have a link you can click on to rectify the situation. DON'T DO IT! The link will take you to a fraudulent copycat site or downloads malware - software that scoops up account and other information from your computer.

The email may begin with "Dear PayPal User". On its web site, PayPal states it uses the first and last names of customers when sending them emails - anything without your full name is a scam. PayPal even has an email address - mailto: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it - where you can report notices you believe are frauds.

The best thing you can do is not clicking on any email links at all. And there is security software you can download - McAfee, a security software provider, has basic security software and has limited-time trials you can try for free.

Gift Card Scams
Gift cards that can be purchased in almost any store have become increasingly popular and available. And wouldn't you know it - these have become a favorite way for criminals to launder money!

A criminal will use cash gained illegally and will buy a number of these gift cards. Then the criminal sells the cards to other people, sometimes at a slight loss. This way the criminal obtains a more legitimate source of funds, such as your personal check or an online bank transfer, which can then be used to open a legitimate bank account. Consumers who buy the cards, often through online auctions, believe they are getting a good deal

Or the criminal will copy the gift card number while it is in a store display, and when the card is purchased, the purchaser will often find that the funds have already been spent. So if you're planning on buying a gift card for the hard-to-shop-for friend or relative, do not buy one that has been on display.

Fraudulent Charities
Watch for emails from charities with a link to give your bank or credit card account numbers in order to donate - and don't do it! You can always send a donation to your favorite charity through the mail.

"Win/Get a Free Gift" Sites
These sites will try to pull you in with a free prize, such as a gift certificate to a store you may go to regularly or some other inducement. They will then take you through page after page asking you to sign up for various things such as a free trial magazine subscription. Technically, this isn't a scam because there is usually some prize at the end, but the sites are often designed to take your personal information and sell it to scammers or others.

The most important thing you can do is use good judgment and common sense - remember if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.