Beware: 5 Online Holiday Shopping Traps

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It doesn't matter if it's the day after Thanksgiving or the night before Christmas, cybercriminals don't take a holiday.

Thieves are in the business of stealing money and, especially during the holiday season, online shoppers can be vulnerable prey.

"People are spending with reckless abandon this time of year," says Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals."

Consumers are always looking for deals, he says, and in their zeal they can miss the warning signs of an online scam. "Their filter is broken," Elliott warns.

To avoid falling victim to these creative crooks, watch out for these five common cyberscams.

1. Fake Shopping Sites

With all the hype about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumers go into shopping mode expecting to find good deals. If you cybershop, you can get sucked in by websites selling counterfeit goods, or overseas-based sites that take your money and provide nothing in return.

Whether it's trendy boots, designer watches or sneakers, you can be sure some crook somewhere has already set up a site intended to grab folks who search for brand names and buzzwords, such as "sale," "discount" or "cheap."

"Deals that are too good to be true are a huge red flag, even on big shopping days like Black Friday," warns Scambook.com, a site that collects consumer complaints.

To help protect yourself:

  • Take care where you click. Never follow links sent by email. If you're going to follow search engine results, learn about the site before you make any purchases from it or provide any personal information.
  • Pay attention to site names. Watch out for sites with names that sound similar to popular sites or include a brand name in the URL. Research the site by typing its name into a search engine, such as Google, with the word "complaints" and see what comes back, suggests the federal government's OnGuardOnline. You can also put the name in the Better Business Bureau database. If you don't find anything wrong, that doesn't necessarily mean you're home free. It could indicate the site was recently created. Scam sites often pop up overnight and quickly disappear when enough people catch on. SiteJabber.com publishes user reviews of sites that can make clear when you're dealing with a shady operation.
  • Stick with the tried-and-true. Use sites that are well-established and that you know to be legitimate. When buying brand-name products online, look for a list of authorized sellers.

2. Promises of 'Free' Stuff

Promotions to "Like" a company's Facebook page in exchange for a $1,000 gift card or getting texts with similar ploys have become routine in recent years. Why? Because people fall for them. Identity thieves count on consumers entering their personal and financial information to get the freebie.

To help protect yourself:

  • Stop and think before acting. A company is not going to give away a $1,000 gift card in exchange for a "Like," and it's not going to randomly text you with a similar deal. If you see one of these come-ons, delete it or just move on. "If you just stopped for a second, you'd realize that it's just too good to be true," Elliott says.

3. Buying Through Online Auctions or Classified Sites

If you're looking for a deal or an offbeat item, turning to online auctions or classified sites could make sense. But they are also home to numerous scams. The traps can be set several ways, but, in the end, the rip-off typically will involve a request for you to send money through an electronic money transfer service (Western Union or MoneyGram, for example) or via a prepaid debit card. The reason: They're the same as cash once they've been sent. So the chances of recovering a loss are tiny.

To help protect yourself:

  • Use a credit card when buying online. Credit cards can protect consumers against fraud.
  • Beware of money transfers. Don't make a payment using a money transfer service to anyone you don't personally know, and use the same caution when asked to pay with a prepaid debit card.
  • Don't pay upfront. If you're buying something locally, pay upon receipt of the item.

4. Phony Black Friday or Other Ads

If you're planning to shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you want to see the big sales in advance. Cybercrooks know that. So they create sites that try to capture traffic from searches for sales fliers. What they really want is your personal information. Similar to the $1,000 gift card scam, the goal of these crooks is to get your personal information, or have you click a link that secretly loads your computer with malware that captures and transmits your information to them.

To help protect yourself:

  • Be vigilant. Don't click on random links, and don't download attachments from people you don't know.
  • Update your software. Be sure your malware and virus protection software is up-to-date and turned on.
  • Go to the source. If you're looking for Black Friday ads, look for legitimate sales information at sites such as BlackFriday.com or DealNews.com.

5. Holiday Vacation Deals You Don't Want

If the idea of spending the holidays on a cruise or lying on a warm beach appeals to you, would you be tempted by an offer to go for free? Or to get your hotel for free? "Anytime you see the word 'free,' alarm bells should go off," Elliott says. "Free cruise. Free all-inclusive vacation. Free flights. All of those things are signs that you are probably looking at a scam. The word 'free' is the lure."

In these sorts of deals, at some point you're going to be asked to a pay "taxes" or a fee that supposedly is the one thing that isn't free. "Once you buy in, they'll promise you the world, and they'll ask you to wire money," Elliott says. "It's in-season this time of year."

To help protect yourself:

  • Play it safe. Use only trusted travel sites and rental agencies when booking.
  • Be wary of superlow prices. Don't fall for gimmicks that make what ought to be a pricey vacation look like something you can get for a fee or a couple of hundred dollars. When those tantalizing promises are dangled, Elliott says, "don't walk away -- run."

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USAA, a diversified financial services organization, is the leading provider of competitively priced financial planning, insurance, investments, and banking products to members of the U.S. military and their eligible families. Rated among the highest among financial services companies for customer advocacy in a Forrester Research survey, USAA provides convenient and accessible financial products to its more than 9 million members. For more information about USAA, or to learn more about membership, visit usaa.com
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