By Jill Krasny
As more consumers pick up their smartphones and tablets to go holiday shopping, cyber crooks are trying just about everything to dupe them out of their hard-earned money.
Forty percent of identity theft victims were targeted while making online purchases in 2011, according to an identity fraud report by Javelin Strategy & Research. Meanwhile identity fraud increased by 13 percent, with more than 11.6 Americans falling prey to the scams.
To keep you protected, we asked Robert Siciliano, online security expert for the software company McAfee, to list off the season's hottest scams and how to avoid them.
The saying "if it looks too good be true, then it probably is" applies here. To set up their phony shops, scammers grab HTML code from a well-known site, then "sell" similar merchandise at a larger discount, explains Siciliano. But buyer beware: "Once you pay, they have the customer's information and you'll never receive the product," he says. Then before you can blink an eye, they'll start racking up charges on your dime. Clearly you shouldn't bother with these sites in the first place, but if you're concerned you've come across a Best Buy or Target imposter, check for misspellings, weird urls and "an overall dysfunctional site," says Siciliano.
With 33 percent of apps asking for more info than they might ever need, you can never be too careful, Siciliano says. If you've purchased the app from iTunes or Google, chances are it's been vetted for any suspicious activity. But if you bought it from a third party site, there's a good chance you'll download some malware. "These apps haven't been properly vetted for having a malicious component, so they might be used to spy on your device, see what text messages you send, what apps you click, and most importantly your username and passwords," he says. And they're definitely after your Social Security and credit card numbers, he adds. "They'll do anything to get paid."
Social Media Traps
"Criminals are setting up fake profiles on Facebook and Twitter, and those pages often have a number of dangerous things, one being that they're infected and once you start clicking those links, they'll infect your device," says Siciliano. Even worse, these links are often designed to get you to spill your personal info. Don't fall for it.
Much like the social media trap, these text or email messages offering discounts are nothing more than a big fat hoax. They'll lure you to click a link and before you know it you'll wind up on a shady site or have downloaded spyware onto your device.
Bogus Gift Cards
Say what you will about gift cards, but those pieces of plastic are still a popular gift. With so many people snapping them up, scammers are rigging third party sites to sell fakes or manipulating the cards at stores and voiding them, says Siciliano. To dodge the scam, only buy the cards kept behind the counter in stores, or buy them at a mall kiosk so you know that you're getting the real thing.
Even hilarious e-cards are prone to criminal mischief sometimes. "Some of these are being used to infect your device and often have links to get you to download something or disclose your personal info," Siciliano says. "You'll want to really delete these and just tell people you prefer to receive paper cards."
If the card was sent in a zip file, be especially wary, he adds.
The Hot Holiday Gift Scam
Every season has its trendy gift du jour: Last year's was the iPhone, and this year the iPad Mini will reign supreme. Con artists love to set up fake websites around these products, offering discounts that are really just a scam in disguise. Don't shop, don't click and never give out your info.
With nearly 1,000 domain names on the books, fake charities are a dime a dozen these days. "It's very impossible to determine whether the site is real or fake," says Siciliano, but "usually you'll get an email asking you to send a donation. Don't click it."
iTunes Gift Card Scams
Even the almighty Apple store isn't immune from a con. If your iTunes account has been compromised, criminals might try to use that information to load up new gift cards, then sell them to unsuspecting consumers, Siciliano says. The charges will appear soon enough, but it's important to act fast and notify Apple and your card issuer of the fraud. "We've been seeing this scam for years now, but it pops up more around this time of year," he says.
Online Coupon Scams
Like a third party retail store, these scams look legit on the surface but ask for way too much information from shoppers. Steer clear.
Fake Classified Ads
Many people choose to buy and sell items via classified ads, often selling items second hand to get more money for gifts. But beware of phone classifieds that ask you to wire money via Western Union or Moneygram, warns Siciliano. "Most of these sites are free and attract criminals because they are free."
Your Email's Spam Folder
Care for some spam with that season's greeting? Sweeping your spam folder might sound insanely productive, but most of the time these emails spell nothing but trouble. "It's important that you don't visit your spam folder, because that's where people often think legit emails are going," Siciliano says. "Instead just delete these and don't ever click the links in the body of an email from an unsolicited sender."