Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Scams can turn holiday glee to gloom

As the Black Friday shopping spree spilled over into Cyber Monday, the FBI warned consumers to watch out for “increasingly aggressive and creative scams” that will make your holidays considerably less merry and bright.

That’s not exactly a news flash, of course. If there’s money being spent, it’s a sure thing that scammers will be hunting for a piece of the action.

But in a report titled ’Tis the Season for Holiday Scams, the FBI said Monday that fraudsters have grown more clever in presenting deals that look sweet but in fact will result in your losing cash or sensitive data, such as a credit card or Social Security number.

“If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably, is,” the bureau said.

The electronic-payments company ACI Worldwide said last week that global retailers can expect a 12% increase in incidents of online fraud this holiday season compared with a year ago.

It said U.S. consumers are particularly at risk following adoption of chip-based credit cards. The more secure technology has put a dent in identity theft but is apparently prompting many cyber-thieves to switch to online rackets.

Only about half of the millions of cards in circulation now have chips instead of magnetic strips.

Mike Braatz, ACI’s chief product officer, said scammers are targeting Americans with “a seismic shift from in-store to online activity.”

“And because fraudulent activity is now considered to be an everyday occurrence, consumers and merchants must take every precaution as we head into peak holiday shopping season,” he said.

The FBI advised shoppers to think twice before being drawn into online deals that appear significantly better than anything on offer from established retailers. You know what I’m talking about: An iPhone for just $50 or a free TV just for filling out an online survey.

Steer clear of unfamiliar sites offering items at unrealistic discounts or gift cards as an incentive to purchase a product,” the FBI said. “You may end up paying for an item, giving away personal information and then receive nothing in return except a compromised identity.”

Be particularly wary of attachments on unsolicited emails. Clicking them open may look like you’re accessing a survey or enrollment form, but there’s an excellent chance you’re infecting your electronic device with a virus or malware.

Social-media services are particularly dangerous venues at this time of year. Your Facebook or Instagram feed can be chockablock with promotions or contests that are actually slick-looking traps.

Don’t fill out online polls or surveys. Don’t provide personal info. Walk away, quickly, from any site that instructs you to wire money or purchase a prepaid card.

For that matter, be wary of gift cards. As I recently wrote, there are all sorts of way for scammers to rip you off.

Make sure any apps you download are from reputable sites, such as app stores run by Apple, Google or Amazon. According to the FBI, “some apps, often disguised as games and offered for free, may be designed to steal personal information from your device.”

Finally, watch out for work-from-home offers. These are especially tempting at this time of year for single parents or people between jobs. However, they seldom involve legitimate businesses, and they almost never represent easy money. Do your homework before signing up.

A day to give

This is Giving Tuesday, which serves as an all-too-brief break from the accumulation of stuff to help those who may be less fortunate.

The idea originated in 2012 as a way to remind people of the importance of charitable donations during the holiday season. It’s not just a way for the well-to-do to garner tax benefits but also a nifty way for the rest of us to do right and generate some good karma.

“Giving Tuesday harnesses the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities,” says the movement’s website. “It provides a platform for them to encourage the donation of time, resources and talents to address local challenges.”

If you have some extra money, there are many worthy organizations deserving of your support. From the Red Cross to Doctors Without Borders, these groups — and many, many others — allow you to make a real difference in the lives of others.

Websites such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator can help ensure that you’re contributing to a legitimate cause.

For those who’d rather donate some time, consider volunteering, even just for a day, at a local animal shelter, or helping prepare a meal at a nearby homeless shelter.

Think of it like this: All the shopping we’re doing is boosting the economy, and that’s a great thing on a macro level.

But a single act of kindness can go just as far on a micro level. And you’ll see the results right away.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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