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The Season Of Giving... And Getting Scammed?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, before there was Suze Orman or Michelle Singletary, or any of the other personal finance columnists we've come to rely on, there was Sylvia Porter. She was a pioneer in a number of respects. And she is the subject of a new biography, which we will tell you about in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to one of the people we've come to trust for some advice because this is the time of year when many people need some advice. Why? Because this is the time of year when many people are reaching into their pockets to buy a special gift for a special someone or because they want to drop some extra cash into the coffers of charities they care about. But our next guest says you should watch out because this is also the time of year when scam artists are also working overtime to get their hands into your wallet, too. And they've actually tailored up some special holiday hustles. Sheryl Harris is with us to tell us more - consumer columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, back with us. Welcome back, thanks for joining us once again.

SHERYL HARRIS: Oh, thank you for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: First, can - is it true that there are, in fact, more scams circulating at this time of year, or are we just more annoyed about them because they seem to be trying to take advantage of our holiday spirit?

HARRIS: Well, I think what we are is more vulnerable to them. And if you think about the way a scam works - I mean, a lot of scammers and high-pressure salespeople are really trying to get us in a position where we're really harried or we're worried. We're not paying attention. We're pressed for time. And we're all going into the holiday season in that frame of mind, right? We've got limited time. We've got so many gifts to buy. We're doing all this stuff getting ready for the holidays. We're distracted. We know we have to buy things and we know we have a really limited time. And some of us are trying to get, you know, our charitable donations off the table, too. So we're already vulnerable, I think.

MARTIN: So there's a window of opportunity that people who have ill intent will try to take advantage of. So let's talk about...

HARRIS: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...The first thing you wanted to tell us about. We just got past so-called Cyber Monday, but you say that people looking for online shopping deals should be vigilant. Tell us more about that.

HARRIS: So a lot of times, you'll find a website. It looks like a name-brand website or a site that you're kind of looking for, only the website is just slightly off. And maybe that website is really - it's just a ringer. It's not really Sears.com, its Searscompany. - you know - mn. So it's really, like, a Mongolian website. You have to be careful of what you're looking at. You should be looking for, is it a .com? Is it the website?

The other thing is a lot of us sort of blindly go online and we start searching for deals. And, you know, we'll see, oh, there are Uggs for this unbelievably low price, and - or, you know, there's a television and, gosh, what a deal it is. And so we make the purchase and we're not really paying attention. Some of these sites are just like pop-up retailers, only they're pop-up scam sites. They're here, they're setting up shop, they're advertising unbelievably great deals. And, you know, you're giving your credit card information - or worse, you're using a debit card.

MARTIN: How would you know? I mean, is there generally a clue in the address, or is there something that you could look for in the site because, obviously, these people are pretty sophisticated if they can figure out how to create a website that is kind of - looks so much like a reputable one that you would be fooled. What can you look for in terms of clues?

HARRIS: So a lot of times the scam sites are really kind of - they feel thin. Like, if you go to a real website, there are company - there are bios for the people who run the company. There are addresses for stores. There are, you know - there's a real address for the place. And a lot of times on these scamming sites, you won't even find an address where this business is located. Although, some of them can be good-looking sites. But if you right-click on the page - anywhere on a webpage - if you right-click, it will give you the real information about what that page is. So even if it's got sort of, you know - it looks like a spoofed address, you can find out what it is.


HARRIS: You can go to BBB.org and you can put in the website and it'll tell you, you know, what the real website is for a company. And so...

MARTIN: OK, OK. All right, we need to move on. You also said that there are scams about job offers for seasonal work. Now, I think this is something that I think a lot of people would be - this was news to me until you told me about it. Tell us about that.

HARRIS: Well, my favorite right now is the J. C. Penney gift wrapping scam. And it targets a lot of people who are out there on job boards and stuff, so it's not weird to get a e-mail. You get an e-mail saying, J. C. Penney is looking for people who - to gift wrapped. And I just heard from a victim of this scam just a couple of months ago. She told me she had applied online. She put in her Social Security number. And sure enough, she starts getting these gifts to gift wrap.

They're coming by mail to her home. She's gift wrapping them and she's sending them off to the addresses overseas where they're, you know, telling her to send them. Well, she gets a call from American Express, which says, you know, we've got some concerns about this new credit card of yours because you're ordering a lot of electronics. It turns out the scammers used her Social Security number to apply for a credit card. They were using this stolen credit card to buy electronics, having her gift wrap them...

MARTIN: That is disgusting.

HARRIS: ...And then send them to over - isn't that awful?

MARTIN: That is just terrible. That is just - that is the lowest.

HARRIS: Yeah, it's like a double scam. And they have her Social Security number now, too, which is really, really problematic. And that's another thing about these job scams. Mystery shopping scams tend to be really big right now. And, you know, someone will send you - they'll say, be a mystery shopper. Help us test our customer service. And you get this giant checklist so it looks legitimate. It's like, go, you know - here's a check, use it to buy this, this product here. Go to that store and buy these things, go here.

And then the last place you go, is to a money wiring place. And you're supposed to use Western Union or MoneyGram and send money, and then write about - you know, rate your experience, your customer experience. Well, you deposit the check in the bank and because banks by law have a very limited time to get you money from your deposit, the bank will put the money in your account, but what you don't know - and what you should understand - is that it doesn't mean that that check has cleared the issuing bank.

MARTIN: Oh, that's terrible.

HARRIS: And when the bank finds out that it's a counterfeit check, they withdraw the money. And any money you've spent against that, you're liable for. So you think you have $3,000, and you're doing all these things. And you've already been paid. And when you send off $1,000 to the money wiring service, that one, you know, that's gone. And you owe that to the bank now. So those are two that I would really be careful of in the holidays.

MARTIN: That's terrible. Now finally, we only have about a minute left. People giving gifts to other people this time of year also, apparently, is an opportunity for people to scam you on the charity side. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

HARRIS: So there are also pop-up charities. There are sound-alike charities. They are - you know, instead of maybe American Heart Association, it's American Heart, you know, something else Association. Or, you know, just - there's a little change in the spelling or something. And those sites are there to take money from folks. Additionally, there also are a lot of charities out there that don't really - they're not really doing - they say they help children, for example. But you have to ask, what are they actually doing? What is the job that they're doing? Ninety percent of people say they care about the mission of the charity, only 30 percent of us ever look and investigate. So there are all sorts of great rating sites.

MARTIN: OK. We have to leave it there for now.


MARTIN: Sheryl Harris is consumer columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Sheryl Harris, thanks. Happy holidays and stay vigilant.

HARRIS: Thanks, you too. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.