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For scams, it’s the most wonderful time of year

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You’ve no doubt heard about “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Well, how about the “12 Scams of Christmas”?

That’s what McAfee, the Internet security company, headlined a recent news release aimed at warning consumers to be extremely vigilant this holiday-shopping season against Scrooge-inspired fraudsters.

“The potential for identity theft increases as consumers share personal information across multiple devices that are often underprotected,” Michelle Dennedy, vice president and chief privacy officer for McAfee, said in a statement.

“Understanding criminals’ mind-sets and being aware of how they try to take advantage of consumers can help ensure that we use our devices the way they were intended – to enhance our lives, not jeopardize them.”

McAfee, which has assembled such a list for years, certainly isn’t the only business or consumer organization offering advice to shoppers this season. The Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau, AARP, online sites such as Scambook and Scambusters, and even the FBI have posted tips on their websites.

Connie Quillen, executive assistant at the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southern Colorado, says her office hasn’t received many holiday-related complaints or inquiries – yet.

But given ’tis the season for such scams, Quillen says consumers should be on the lookout for two in particular: purchasing goods from a website that doesn’t have any products – or at least has no intention of shipping them – and buying gift cards that already have been compromised.

In the first instance, Quillen advises online shoppers to make sure the website is both legitimate and secure before submitting credit card or other personal information.

Consumers can do this by making sure the URL address starts with “https://” – this means the connection between your browser and the Web server is encrypted. A padlock symbol should be visible near the corner of the URL address, too.

Quillen also cautions online shoppers to search the website for a physical address and telephone number. If you can’t find them, consider other options.

“Don’t purchase from an online company that only has an email address,” she says.

As for the second, Quillen says consumers should be extra careful when purchasing gift cards in stores, especially if the cards are placed somewhere with broad public access.

That’s because scammers have been known to scratch off the back of the card to reveal the pin number before placing them back on the rack. With that information and the number on the back of the card in hand, they can monitor when the card has been activated and then spend the money online before the intended recipient has the opportunity to do so.

“Make sure the pin code has not been revealed,” Quillen says.

Her final piece of advice has less to do with scams and more to do with economic circumstances – receiving a gift card from a company that unexpectedly goes out of business before you have a chance to use it.

That’s what happened a few years ago when Borders filed for bankruptcy protection and proceeded to close all of its bookstores.

“If you receive a gift card as a gift, use it as soon as possible to protect yourself,” she says.

In the meantime, here are a few of the online warnings that made it onto McAfee’s 2013 Christmas scam list. (The full list is available at McAfee.com.)

  • Not-so-merry mobile apps : What may appear to be “official-looking” software for holiday shopping may actually be malware intended to pilfer or distribute your personal data to others potential thieves.
  • Holiday mobile SMS scams : FakeInstaller mobile malware targets Android phones users under the guise of being a legitimate app installer. Instead, it uses access to your smartphone to send SMS messages to numbers that will bill you at a premium rate.
  • Deceptive online games : Be suspicious of where these games originate before your children download them for their game-playing pleasure. Some full-version downloads of “Grand Theft Auto,” for example – available from multiple websites – can contain malware that can infect your device and put personal data in jeopardy.

Don’t let scammers ruin your gift-giving experience. For more information, check out some of the websites accompanying this column or just do a Google search for “holiday shopping scams.”

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

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