'Tis the season to be wary. After all, the last part of the year does see an uptick in the amount of financial, malware and identity-stealing scams, according to the AARP.
In the season when cyber attacks are most common, here's a little bit of good news: There are plenty of ways to double down on your internet security. Arm yourself with knowledge about ransomware and other common holiday scams to avoid putting your identity at risk.
The Ho-Ho-Faux Virus
So you're browsing your computer or phone for holiday deals, and suddenly a very official looking window pops up. In some guise, it might be a faux "FBI" message telling you that you're under investigation, or that your files have been encrypted.
Following the window's instructions could get you locked out of your operating system or hard drive's data until you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a decryption key. That's why this type of faux virus is called "ransomware" — and why its perpetrators are definitely getting coal in their stockings this year.
Use internet security software and computer security software, such as ad blockers and anti-malware programs, to safeguard your device from ransomware. And, keep both physical and cloud-based data backups. If a ransom window appears, shut down your device and put the scammer's URL on your antivirus software's blacklist pronto.
Fake IRS Threats
Sometimes, phone scammers call taxpayers claiming to be IRS employees, going so far as to drum up fake IRS ID numbers. They tell the victim that they owe money, which must be paid promptly via a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer.
Alternatively, these naughty-listers might promise a big tax return in exchange for private info, which they could then use to commit identity theft. They might even send an unsolicited email from the "IRS," infecting your computer with malware to gain sensitive info. In 2016, the IRS saw this type of fraud spike about 400 percent in frequency.
However, the real IRS will never demand immediate payment via a specific method — they'll mail the bill first. Likewise, the IRS will never ask for your credit or debit card number over the phone. Instead, they'll let you question or appeal the amount you owe. Lastly, they'll never immediately threaten you with legal action for not paying. Keep your holidays merry by looking for scammer signs.
Email Shipping Scams
Chances are, you're expecting a few deliveries this holiday season — just don't let that present-opening excitement get the better of you. Be vigilant when you receive an email notice from services like UPS, FedEx, the USPS or others when you're not expecting a package.
If the email doesn't have specific info such as your name or a tracking number and comes from a generic email address rather than a shipping company's domain name, clicking any links contained therein might just infect your computer with malware. To play it safe, stick to the official websites of shipping services to track your gifts and holiday packages this year.
It's natural and admirable to feel a little more charitable during the holidays, especially when that warm, giving spirit strikes. Unfortunately, there are Grinches out there willing to prey on generosity. By all means, do give to the needy this season — just do it safely.
Don't give away those credit card digits unless you made the call, and always vet organizations before opening your wallet to weed out imposters. Head on over to the Charity Navigator website or your state's regulatory agency listed on NASCOnet.org to make sure the charity of your choice is legit before shelling out for a gift.
Tricking you into handing over personal info as a means of accessing your finances isn't a practice exclusive to tax scammers — it's a widespread form of financial fraud known as phishing.
You might just click on an email link from a fake credit card company, handing over your personal data via a phony login form. Sometimes, that link immediately infects your computer and will track your online activity, revealing info such as passwords or bank account numbers.
By phone, phishing scams are called 'vishing.' When sent by text, they're referred to as 'smishing.' Those names might sound funny, but the results make for very unhappy holidays. Be wary if a court claims you've missed jury duty via text and demands a fee, or if a charity you've never heard of asks you for money out of the blue. Reduce cybersecurity risks by using secure WiFi networks and Virtual Private Networks (VPN) whenever possible.
The Advance Fee
When someone calls, emails or comes knocking asking you for money before they provide any services or products, it's time to raise an eyebrow — especially if you've never heard of the money-grubbing party in question. Typically, these con artists ask for a comparatively small fee that has to be paid immediately and a "reward" that comes later.
This winter, look out for door-to-door or phone scams offering home maintenance services — especially those pitched as urgent, safety-related repairs — and demand cash up front. Similarly, a text message might request payment for an "application fee" for a loan. Watch out for businesses that use non-circumvention or nondisclosure agreements, and those that operate out of P.O. boxes — the lack of a street address makes scammers harder to track. And remember, only Santa has an address in the North Pole.
Free Lumps of Coal
Everyone likes to give during the most wonderful time of the year: the season when sweepstakes, contests and freebies flow like eggnog and cocoa. On the flip side, scammers tend to sneak in among these offers, sliding info-tracking malware into your inbox by pretending that you've won a free vacation or offering holiday-themed phone wallpapers and another digital décor.
If you're one of those decorators that covers everything from the front door to your computer's desktop in holiday cheer, then, by all means, knock yourself out. Just don't go clicking on email links from unknown retailers or providers of festive screensavers, e-cards and ringtones that you've never so much as heard of.
Holiday Vacation Nightmares
If you thought a wintertime trip to Aunt Geraldine's place was a bad vacation, think again. Scammers know that families love to get away during the chilly months. If you get an email from a supposed travel agency or booking service with prices that seem too good to be true, they just might be.
Look for red flags like holiday flight prices that are significantly cheaper than any other competitor, low-quality logos, lack of receipts and organizations that require bank transfers for payment. If the mental alarms go off, save your money for a vacay to a real winter wonderland.
Have a Safe Trip: Ways to Protect Your Money and Identity While Traveling
Frosty Online Dating Fraud
It's officially cuffing season, so imagine you're swiping on Tinder and match with someone who looks like a supermodel, messages at superhuman speed and wants to meet up instantly. It's a Christmas miracle, right?
Actually, it's not likely the start of a whirlwind romance, unless you consider being robbed to be romantic. The most obvious giveaway here is when a potential date asks for a money transfer, whether via a dating app or a faux profile on social media.
On apps, you might match with "bots" who send grammatically dubious or out-of-context messages. These bots often try to get you to sign up for an external paid service in order to contact them or phish you for private info. Never send money to an individual you haven't met in person, and always flag potential scammers using in-app options.
More From the Naughty List
For scammers and spammers, the holidays offer a cornucopia of schemes. In addition to those already covered, be on the lookout for:
1. Shady email links from unknown retailers promising unbelievable deals, especially from unfamiliar auction sites.
2. Social media friend requests from people you've never met or people who slide into your DMs with requests to wire money.
3. Emails that request delivery charges to release a package or any unfamiliar organizations that ask you to enter a password.
These schemes can get a hold of your credit card info, personal details, cash or private passwords — which is why you should check the scam list twice. If you find yourself the victim of a scam or ID theft this holiday season or at any time of the year, turn to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
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