Originally created 11/30/03

'Tis the season for hams, yams and scams



Santa Claus isn't the only one who needs to make a list and check it twice this holiday season. Shoppers and those who give to charity better keep track of who's naughty and not so nice, or risk being taken for big bucks.

The Grinch, disguised as a scam artist and other unsavory characters, is sure to be out scouring the shopping malls and working the phones, doing his darnedest to separate you from your money.

"People are more generous when they're in the holiday spirit, and that leaves them vulnerable to shady groups of people trying to take advantage of them," said Lt. Tony Walden of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office.

Because things aren't always what they seem, even Santa must stand up to heightened scrutiny nowadays.

Think for a moment about a recent Pre-employ.com study that showed 7 percent of all applicants for mall Santa jobs had been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony. The California job-screening service said the crimes included "indecent exposure" and "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."

In addition to the old-fashioned pickpockets and smooth-talking salesmen, consumers today need to be on the lookout for fake charities and a slew of sophisticated Internet scams that are out to steal identities.

The spread of good tidings must therefore go hand-in-hand with some good tips: The first being that old adage, "Whatever sounds too good to be true usually is."

Other red flags to watch out for and some advice on how to stay safe:

Charities

Holiday appeals for charitable donations are a staple this time of the year. Unfortunately, so are phony rackets posing as legitimate charities.

"It's best to stick with name-brand charities you recognize," said Rebecca Harrison, an Augusta agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Still, it pays to be wary.

Many outfits try to fool givers by sounding like well-known organizations. For instance, someone may try to pass a group off as the American Cancer Society by calling itself the American Cancer "Outreach" Society.

To steer clear of such scams, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the charities are for real. Also consult the secretary of state's office in your state to make sure a charity is registered to solicit money.

Other tips include watching out for letters thanking you for your pledge last year and your promise to give the same amount this year. Too often, it's a ploy.

Pressure tactics, such as tear-jerker tales of woe and claims that it's the last day anyone can give, are also telltale signs that the solicitor is up to no good. And don't deal with charities that won't answer the phone and only get back to you after a voice mail is left.

Chances are, the more questions you ask, the lower the probability of getting ripped off. Legitimate charities won't hesitate to send a brochure. Most also will make contact over the phone or through the mail and not go door-to-door.

If you plan to give, make sure to:

  • Ask about how much of the donation goes to "administrative costs." Sometimes less than a penny on the $1 goes to the needy.
  • Cut a check and never use cash.
  • Write out the check to an organization, not a person.
  • Never give money to a runner, courier or overnight mail.
  • Never send donations to a P.O. box
  • Holiday fog

    The desire to get gifts for everyone may cloud your judgment and lead to some bad decisions.

    Rogue offers of unlimited credit lines for the holidays usually come along with a processing fee.

    Don't fall for that one.

    A creditor won't extend borrowing limits unless the risks of doing so are covered by a higher interest rate. Short-term offers of fast credit usually are tied to steep loan-shark rates. Worse yet is the "company" that disappears as soon as it gets its up-front money from you.

    Also, be sure to read the fine print on contracts, warranties and return policies. Slipping a whole bunch of provisos into the tiny text at the bottom isn't as much a scam as an old-time tradition. Who wants to read all that gobbledygook? Still, it stings to get stuck with an unwanted item.

    The search for a good deal also can get bargain-hunters in trouble. Beware of merchandise selling at makeshift stalls and at deep discounts. Those imitation Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags selling on the street corner may look like a steal at those rock-bottom prices, and in reality they are - stolen, that is.

    Phone calls and loads of mail offering cheap and even free holiday vacations and cruises to the islands are yet another trick to coax personal information out of you so the thieves can assume your identity.

    Identity theft

    Millions of Americans use credit cards to pay for gifts or book trips because it's convenient and safer than carrying cash. A recent industry survey backs up that trend, noting that 73 percent of households in the country turn to plastic payments on a regular basis, up from 16 percent three decades ago.

    Still, every time you slap that card down on the counter or hand it to the waiter, you run the risk of inadvertently joining a growing group of Americans who get their identities stolen each year and lose billions of dollars.

    To stop criminals from masquerading as you and ruining your credit, banks, insurance companies and consumer groups offer some advice.

    While shopping, carry only the cards you need. Don't throw the receipt in a public trash bin, and when you do discard receipts, make sure to shred them.

    Never give out personal information to a sales clerk; an address and phone number aren't conditions of a purchase. And don't pass along a Social Security number, date of birth, or a mother's maiden name in a store, over the phone or on the Internet. When making a purchase online, make sure the "padlock" icon appears in the bottom corner of the screen to ensure the link is secure.

    A recent computer worm fooled many Internet users into divulging such information by posing as PayPal, an online service that facilitates credit-card payments.

    Write down all account information and keep it in a separate location. Each major credit card has a toll-free number to call any time of the day. If a card is stolen, report the theft right away.

    Year-round vigilance

    Just because the holidays come and go doesn't mean the scam artists pack up and return to the North Pole like Santa.

    Many are, however, on the prowl from far-away lands.

    "The biggest thing we hear about here are foreign scams that try to get people to send over money," said Roy Everingham, president of the Augusta office of the Better Business Bureau, on Seventh Street.

    The scourge in recent years has been a flurry of boiler-room operations run by criminal gangs in Canada that call on cell phones to prevent tracing and tell unsuspecting victims, often seniors, they have won a lottery or sweepstakes. The unnamed caller convinces the victim that they need only wire some money to cover the legal expenses before they collect their winnings.

    No one should ever have to fork out money to win money, says Barry Elliott, a detective with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and coordinator of PhoneBusters, a law enforcement effort to combat telemarketing fraud.

    Because of lax laws and limited law-enforcement resources, as many as 1,000 telemarketing operations are in business on any given day in Canada, he said.

    Another scam filtering through Canada and roaming around the globe is the Nigerian scam. Also called the "419" scam, for the criminal code section in Nigeria, these dishonest pleas for help also come by way of fax or e-mail. They say that someone needs your help to wire a small fortune out of the country - most of the time Nigeria - because by law that person can't.

    It promises a piece of the pie if you help. The catch - you first need to send them personal bank-account information and then front money to cover various fees and bribes for the transfer.

    The digit-based scams don't end there. Be leery of the "809" scam that leaves messages telling consumers they're not paying their bills and they need to call or fax a number that starts with (809) before their service is disconnected or their credit rating gets hurt.

    The 809 area code is an international call to the Caribbean and the "pay-per-call" number can cost $25 a minute. Scam service representatives who answer the phone will purposely dilly-dally to keep you on for as long as possible and wrack up the fat charges.

    Here are some contacts to help keep your money safe this holiday season:

    Internet sites to check which charities are legit:

    Georgia: www.sos.state.ga.us/securities/charitysearch.htm

    South Carolina: www.scsos.com/angels_and_scrooges.asp

    Others:

  • www.give.org
  • www.irs.gov/charities/page/0,,id15053,00.html
  • To avoid scam offers:

    www.ftc.gov

    To avoid identity theft:

  • www.yourcreditcardcompanies.com
  • www.consumer.gov/idtheft
  • Other contacts to avoid scams:

    Better Business Bureau Inc.

    P.O. Box 2085, Augusta, GA 30903-2085

    Phone: (706) 722-1574; fax: (706) 724-0969

    E-mail: info@augusta-ga.bbb.org

    Web: www.augusta-ga.bbb.org/

    Office hours: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday

    Web sites:

  • www.fraud.org/
  • www.home.rica.net/alphae/419coal/
  • www.scambusters.org/
  • www.phonebusters.com/
  • Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352 or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com