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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 14, 2006

Head off those holiday scams

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

GIFT CARD

The popularity of gift cards has made them a target of thieves. Companies recently have added "scratch here" areas that reveal the hidden PIN number.

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TIPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM BECOMING A VICTIM

CASH

Don't flash your cash when shopping, and never tote large amounts of greenbacks during the holidays. Play it safe and stick with credit or debit cards.

CREDIT CARDS

Carry only credit cards you use. Notify the card issuer immediately if a card is lost or stolen. Check your card reports for purchases you didn't authorize.

ATM USE

Withdraw only the amount you need, hide your PIN code from onlookers and stay away from isolated ATMs that aren't in busy, well-lit locations.

NO PAPER TRAIL

Store or shred transaction information. Identity thieves thrive on ATM and credit-card receipts that can tip them off to your private information. Never toss receipts where the bad guys can snatch them. Leave your Social Security card at home.

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WHAT THE EXPERTS ADVISE

"Whether you're buying from a brick-and-mortar store or through the Internet, you should really familiarize yourself with the refund and return policy. Know exactly what your rights are, if you can return the product and what the conditions of the return are; what the shipping and handling fees (are)."

Stephen Levins, executive director of the State Office of Consumer Protection

"What we normally say to people is if you want to donate to a charitable cause, it's the one that you're soliciting, not one that's soliciting you. Say you want to donate to the American Cancer Society look them up in the phone book and ask them how to donate."

Christine Hirasa, information specialist for the state Department of Commerce and Consumer affairs

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Here's how one holiday scam works:

A representative for a gift card company hears from a friendly caller who's asking if his holiday gift card is up and running. The caller dutifully recites the card's number and a moment later the representative informs him, sure enough, the card has been activated.

With that, the happy caller who's actually a thief begins making online purchases using the number he jotted down several days earlier from a card on display at some store check-out counter.

Meanwhile, the unsuspecting victim who actually received the gift card is getting ripped off.

It's all part of the annual holiday scam tradition. In the weeks before Christmas, folks aplenty are out and about, scurrying from shop to gift counter, feeling generous, spending freely.

It's the most wonderful time of year to be a swindler.

"As the technology evolves, these criminals keep on finding new ways to beat the system," Stephen Levins, executive director of the Hawai'i Office of Consumer Protection, said about the gift card scam. "It's the same type of theft like stealing someone's wallet a generation ago. Only now it's being done through electronic means."

Levins said there's a never-ending contest between the clever scam artists who create ways to thwart technology, and reputable enterprises that figure out new, high-tech ways to stifle the crooks.

For example, Levins said more gift cards now come with scratch-off security numbers to help protect card recipients. Eventually, con artists could figure out a way around that roadblock.

According to Christine Hirasa, information specialist for the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, there is no shortage of people getting cheated this season.

"There's so many different scams," Hirasa said. "We do see more telemarketing scams around this time of year. In fact, I just had a woman call and say someone called her wanting a donation because they told her the state won't train police officers here.

"I told her the police fall under the city jurisdiction, not the state."

Hirasa's advice: If you want to make a charitable donation, contact the charity of your choice. Don't let some unsolicited caller decide what you should donate to.

"It's safer if you solicit the charity of your choosing," she said.

A high percentage of holiday scams could be avoided if people were more prudent about guarding their private information, experts say.

"It's important to protect your privacy," Levins said. "If someone solicits you by phone or on the Internet and asks for your personal information even if you think it's legitimate you shouldn't provide it unless you're absolutely sure."

Despite the high-tech nature of some cons, other flimflams don't need to be retooled for technology, Levins said. They still swindle the old-fashioned way. One such oldie is the sweepstakes scam.

"Someone will call you up and say, 'You've won a prize,' " he said.

The prizes are substantial "hundreds of thousands of dollars." But before the victim can claim his or her prize, some sort of fee or tax on the winnings must be paid.

"If you give money to someone over the telephone to pay the attorney fees, or shipping fees, or whatever, you're going to lose your money. That's a scam that's been around probably since the telephone was invented."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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