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Avoiding Shopping Scams

The Sneakiest New Shopping Scams

Easy ways to avoid the biggest rip-offs online and in stores
By the editors of Shop Smart Magazine

Just as important as knowing how to sniff out great buys is understanding what it takes to avoid rip-offs. And with Internet fraud on the rise, it's getting tougher to outsmart the criminals. Complaints to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint operation of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, jumped 22 percent last year. The complaints include plenty of run-of-the-mill scams, like sellers who steal credit-card numbers or take the money and run. But those are child's play compared with what else is brewing.

Think you're too savvy to get taken? OK, maybe you don't fall for those e-mails from Nigerian royalty asking you to wire money, but digital criminals are getting sneakier every year. One scam that can trip up even the most cautious consumers involves "skimmers" attached to ATMs. Those devices record account numbers and passwords so that thieves can clean out your bank account.

"These guys are constantly thinking of new ways to swindle you, some of which are quite sophisticated," says Brian Krebs, a computer security expert and author of "Krebs on Security" at Krebsonsecurity.com.

Think you're safer shopping at the mall? Official purse-snatching statistics show there's been a downward trend, but many of those crimes aren't reported to law enforcement officials. And pickpocket activity always jumps around holiday time, says Bob Arno, co-author of "Travel Advisory! How to Avoid Thefts, Cons and Street Scams While Traveling" (Bonus Books, 2003). But you can outsmart even the craftiest swindlers if you know what's in their bag of nasty tricks. Here's a guide to the latest, sneakiest scams, and simple tips that can help you protect yourself.

3 simple ways to protect yourself

1. Get the right security software

In recent tests, we found two great, downloadable programs that protect against viruses, spyware, and other online threats at no charge. Try Avira, at www.free-av.com, or Microsoft Security Essentials, at www.microsoft.com/security_essentials.

2. Fight fraud

There are several useful resources for ensuring your online safety. Bookmark these!

  • FTC.gov The Federal Trade Commission's site has lots of fact sheets that tell you what to do you if you've been scammed. Under the Consumer Protection tab, click on "Consumer Information" and then "Shopping for Products & Services." Don't miss the helpful primers on what to do if you're billed for merchandise you never receive and "How to right a wrong."
  • Safeshopping.org This site is sponsored by the American Bar Association and is packed with advice on safe payment methods, protecting your privacy when you shop, and other need-to-know topics.
  • OnGuardOnline.gov This site has tips on Internet shopping and is sponsored by government agencies. Quizzes test your knowledge of spyware, online auctions, ID theft, and more.
  • Antiphishing.org The Anti-Phishing Working Group, an industry-sponsored association, has a tip sheet on how to avoid being scammed. Click on "Consumer Advice," then "How to Avoid Phishing Scams."
  • Check sellers Before you do business with anyone, go to the Better Business Bureau, at www.bbb.org/us. Grades A to F are based on how long the seller has been in business and how good a job it does resolving complaints. Other sites that are worth a look include SiteJabber.com, Complaints.com, and RipoffReport.com, for its user reviews. Also do a Google search of the site or retailer and the word "complaints."

3. Hang on to your handbag!

Bob Arno, an author and anti-theft consultant, has traveled the world secretly filming pickpockets. So he knows their tricks and how to thwart them. Here's his advice:

  • Get a grip: Thieves are just as likely to snatch your purse as to slip a hand inside it to grab a wallet. So keep your handbag tight against your body and in front of you at all times. And when you're sitting down in the food court at the mall, don't sling your purse behind you on the chair. Even if you think you're maintaining physical contact with your bag, leaning forward for just a second is all the opportunity a thief needs to grab it. And never put it on the floor, even if it's in front of you.
  • Nix knapsacks: They're back in style, but any bag that's not within your view is a juicy target for skilled pickpockets, no matter how securely it's fastened. And avoid purses with open compartments. Bags with zippers are best.
  • Keep your focus: A classic ploy of purse thieves is to create a diversion - pointing at something, talking loudly, holding open a map and asking for directions, or spilling something on your coat then offering to clean it up. It can happen in a restaurant or a busy mall. Whenever anyone approaches you, be sure to firmly hold your purse and keep it in front of you.
  • Pare down your wallet: Do you really need to bring all of your credit cards and ID cards with you? Leave everything except the necessities at home. And never routinely carry around anything with your Social Security number on it. (Photocopy all of the cards in your wallet, just in case.)
  • Be smart with your car: Park in well-lit areas. If it's still daylight but you plan to shop for a while, park under a street lamp or in a well-lit garage. Always put up your windows and lock the car. If you go back to your car to stow packages, put them in the trunk - visible boxes and bags are magnets for thieves. Don't load up with so many packages that your purse dangles from your arm, out of your sight. Take advantage of curbside pickup or ask the store to hold bags for you. If someone tries to grab your purse, don't resist. "It's not worth losing your life over," Arno says. Also, if you have a GPS device in your car, program it so that your "home" setting isn't your home address. Instead, use the school or church down the street, or crooks will know how to get to your house while you're out. GPS thefts are also on the rise, so don't leave any visible trace of one in your car, including the mount.
  • Check sellers: Before you do business with anyone, go to the Better Business Bureau, at www.bbb.org/us. Grades A to F are based on how long the seller has been in business and how good a job it does resolving complaints. Other sites that are worth a look include SiteJabber.com, Complaints.com, and RipoffReport.com, for its user reviews. Also do a Google search of the site or retailer and the word "complaints."
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