MONEY

5 Ways Scammers are Targeting Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers

The baddies perpetrating these crimes ought to get coal in their stockings. But if you're not careful, they might get your money instead.

In the final days before Christmas, holiday scams are haunting shoppers once again. As you finish buying the last of your presents, watch out for these Scrooge-like schemes:

1. Feast of the phishers

Email scams in particular have been making headlines this season. They even earned a spot on the Better Business Bureau’s list of holiday scams to avoid.

“Phishing emails are a common way for hackers to get at your personal information or break into your computer,” the BBB warns. “Around the holidays, beware of e-cards and messages pretending to be from companies like UPS, Federal Express or major retailers with links to package tracking information.”

Also, be wary of any communications received from charities to which you’ve never given money.

To outwit these scammers, don’t open any emails from senders you don’t recognize, and definitely don’t click on any links or download any attachments in these messages.

And if you get an email from a particular retailer and you haven’t recently made a purchase (or signed up for the mailing list), assume that it’s a phishing attempt and don’t click through just in case.

2. $0 gift cards

Gift cards may seem like the perfect gift, but they can also be the perfect scam.

Sometimes, cards that are sold online from sites other than those of major retailers can turn out to contain little or no money.

But gift card scams abound in stores as well. Sophisticated criminals copy gift card information right off cards on the rack, wait for a shopper to activate the card and then swoop in and steal the funds.

For the safest possible purchase, buy gift cards directly from the source. And when buying in-store, remember to check that the scratch-off activation code on the back is untouched before purchase if the card was openly on display.

3. The doggie double-cross

You may be shopping for more than clothes and electronics this season. If you’re hoping to add a four-legged family member, you’ll need to be careful here as well.

In the so-called puppy scam, unknowing prospective pet owners locate a supposed breeder online and wire money for a dog they hope to adopt, but are ultimately left without a furry friend.

The Humane Society of the United States recommends avoiding such scams by adopting Christmas puppies from a shelter, animal rescue group or breeder to whom you’ve been referred by someone you trust.

4. Package pilfering

Ordering some of your gifts online?

The downside of convenience is that the pile of packages that arrives on your doorstep may be tempting to some unsavory sorts. Already people across the country—from Texas to New Jersey—have reported boxes being stolen.

To prevent becoming a victim of box burglars, you could require signature on delivery for anything you order for yourself and ask anyone you expect to be sending you things to do the same. You can ask the shipper to hold your goods at its local outpost, where you can then pick it up.

5. The wallet grab

Criminals may be getting savvier with their online schemes, but the traditional pickpocketing and smash-and-grab techniques still exist.

Crowded malls filled with frantic, distracted eleventh hour shoppers are a pickpocket’s dream come true.

So, as obvious as it may sound, make sure you take precautionary measures, such as holding your purse and/or wallet close to the front of your body, keeping all bags zipped and removing any purchases from plain sight in your car.

Courtney Jespersen writes for NerdWallet DealFinder, a website that helps shoppers find the best deals on popular products.

More from NerdWallet:

MONEY privacy

Security Flaws Let Hackers Listen in on Calls

German researchers say the network that allows cellphone carriers to direct calls to one another is full of security holes.

MONEY Odd Spending

4 Things to Know About (Legal) Cuban Cigars

A box of large cohiba Cuban cigars.
A box of large cohiba Cuban cigars. David Curtis—agefotostock

For the time being, it still won't be easy to procure legal Cuban cigars.

In 1962, President John Kennedy reportedly stockpiled 1,200 Cuban cigars before signing the decree to cut economic ties with Cuba. Now that President Obama has reestablished diplomatic ties and lifted the outright ban on cigars, you might be eager to build your own stash.

Not so fast. Here’s what the new rules actually mean for you.

1) Cuban cigars are still not legal for sale in the United States.

President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba. He did not lift the embargo on Cuba—that will take an act of Congress. While the United States will soon ease restrictions on travel and banking, for the time being, the ban on trade remains in place. Which means you won’t be able to buy legal Cuban cigars from American retailers anytime soon.

Current law says the penalty for importing Cuban cigars is up to $250,000 in fines and up to 10 years in prison. Under the new rules, travelers to Cuba can bring back $400 worth of goods, only $100 of which can be cigars and alcohol.

2) Only “licensed travelers” can get them.

If you want legal cigars, you need a license to cross the straits of Florida. The White House says the government will allow Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family, to conduct official government business, to produce journalism, for professional research, for educational activities, for religious activities, for public events, to support the Cuban people, for humanitarian projects, to act on behalf of private foundations, to transmit information materials, and to conduct “certain export transactions.”

That said, the Associated Press reported that 170,000 Americans visited the country legally last year. If you’re thinking of traveling to Cuba now that the United States has restored full relations, here’s what else you should know.

3) Yes, Cuban cigars really do taste different.

Cuban cigars been contraband for half a century. So are they really as good as people say, or does the “forbidden fruit” taste sweeter?

Aaron Sigmond, founding editor of The Cigar Report and Smoke Magazine, says yes: Cuba’s terroir—its soil and climate—does produce different tobacco. “The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua both make exceptional cigars, but nothing is like Cuba,” Sigmond told Bloomberg. “It’s analogous to wines. California, Oregon, Italy all make exceptional vintage wines, but the wines of France reign supreme simply because of the terroir in Burgundy and Bordeaux.”

Researchers agree: One study found judges could distinguish between Cuban and non-Cuban cigars, and judges consistently ranked Cuban cigars higher, Vox reports. That’s significant, since previous studies have found that people struggle to distinguish expensive and inexpensive wines.

But if you’re not a cigar aficionado, you might not be able to tell. Many people are snookered by counterfeits. “Most people are not getting what they think are Cuban cigars,” Roland Boone, tobacconist for the Buckhead Cigar Club in Atlanta, told Bloomberg. “Many are made in Mexico, with a facsimile of a band that appears like a Cuban band.”

4) If you want to try a real Cuban, it’ll probably run you $10 to $20 a cigar—or more.

Real Cubans are expensive. Slate estimates that they start at $10 a pop. Sadly, that means the rules could exclude the best Cuban cigars. Stephen Pulvirent at Bloomberg writes:

“While prices vary greatly—not all Cuban cigars are created equal—the $100 allotment will generally cover no more than a dozen high-end cigars from makers such as Partagás and Cohiba. There are vintage and limited edition cigars for which a single stick will still be too pricey to make it into the U.S.”

READ NEXT: Thinking About a Trip to Cuba? 5 Things You Should Know

MONEY Scams

Beware the ‘Letter from Santa’ Identity-Theft Scam

Santa mugshot
Rich Legg—Getty Images

Santa Claus is coming… for your credit cards.

If you really want to convince your kids they’ve received a letter from Santa, practice your creative handwriting skills or ask a friend to write one — buying one off the Internet probably isn’t the way to go.

While there appear to be some legitimate “Letters from Santa” businesses online and plenty of free downloadable templates, there are also people running similar operations who couldn’t care less about getting letters to children. The Better Business Bureau issued a warning to consumers Monday about Santa letter scams, which are designed to steal your money and personal information.

The scam has a few faces. In one iteration, you may receive an email hawking handwritten letters from Santa, telling you to make your child’s Christmas special with a personalized note and official “nice-list” certificate. You follow the link in the email to pay $19.99 for this limited-time offer, and in the best-case scenario, you lose $20. You may have also handed over your credit card information to a thief, exposing you to credit- or debit-card fraud.

Even free services may not be safe, the BBB warned. Your contact information is valuable, so the people running the letters from Santa site may sell it to spammers or identity thieves. While you’re pressed for time this holiday season, make sure you’re not letting busyness compromise your security. It’s a good idea to shop with retailers you’re familiar with, check to make sure sites are secure before you enter sensitive information, and make a habit of checking your bank statements for signs of unauthorized activity.

You should also keep an eye on your credit score, because a sudden drop may indicate fraud. You can get two of your credit scores for free with updates every 30 days on Credit.com. You may be at greater risk for credit- or debit-card fraud and identity theft during the holidays, but knowing what to watch out for and understanding how to respond to fraud will reduce the chances you suffer significant financial or credit damage.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Scams

Price-Matching Scam Had $400 Sony PS4 Selling for $90 at Walmart

Scammers have been trying to take advantage of Walmart's price-matching policy by using fraudulent web pages to get Wii U bundles and Sony PS4 consoles for a fraction of their actual prices.

Leading into the 2014 winter holiday shopping season, Walmart broadened its price match guarantee policy to include prices offered by major online retailers like Amazon, as well as websites for stores such as Best Buy, Sports Authority, Staples, and Target. Until the change was made, Walmart would only match the sale prices posted in advertisements and competitors’ weekly circulars.

Well, it didn’t take long for opportunists to try—and, in some cases, succeed—to take advantage of price matching from Walmart and other stores. Earlier this week, Kotaku reported that a pricing glitch over the weekend on the Sears website showed Wii U bundles listed at $60 when they normally sell for upwards of $300. Sears fixed the mistake, and it appears as if no one was actually able to buy the console bundle for that price at the retailer’s site. But that didn’t stop many shoppers from trying to get the same deal from Sears’ competitors such as Walmart, Toys R Us, and Best Buy by way of their price matching policies. It’s unclear how many consumers were able to get the price honored, but several showed off their receipts at Reddit—one Toys R Us receipt notes the customer “Saved $240″ on the purchase—and surely many more succeeded and kept things quiet.

Then scammers took things a step further by creating fake Amazon.com pages that appeared to list Sony PS4 game consoles, which normally run $400, for under $100. As Consumerist.com explained, anyone with a registered account for selling things on Amazon can list an item at whatever price they choose. Amazon tries to root out obviously fraudulent or misleading price listings—such as a new Sony PS4 for $90—but it can take some time to catch up with the fraudsters. Before that happens, someone can take a screen shot and bring what appears to be a perfectly legitimate image into a store and ask that the price be matched.

That’s what happened at Walmart this week. By Wednesday, Walmart caught up with the scam, and some stores posted signs stating that the “PS4 Amazon.com Ad will not be Ad matched Due to Fraud.” The world’s largest retailer alerted CNBC and others that its price-matching policy has been updated to clarify that stores will not honor “Prices from marketplace and third-party sellers” such as those Amazon pages that were manipulated by users. “We can’t tolerate fraud or attempts to trick our cashiers,” a statement from Walmart explained. “This kind of activity is unfair to the millions of customers who count on us every day for honest value.”

So the scam appears to be dead, but not before an unknown number of consumers were able to take advantage of it and snag ultra-cheap PS4 consoles and, in some cases, cut-rate Xbox Ones and video games. If you think that the only ones hurt by this kind of behavior are Walmart and other major retailers, consider how much more difficult and time-consuming it’s going to be for perfectly honest customers to get genuine prices matched. Now that retailers are on the lookout for scams, be prepared to get the third degree when seeking a price match, even if you’re completely on the up and up.

MONEY charitable giving

The Best Ways to Donate to Help Fight Ebola

How to find a charity that will spend your money well—and how to avoid the scams that always spring up after disasters.

Many charities are immersed in the fight to control the Ebola epidemic, but so far the donors have not come forward en masse—although scams already are emerging.

For those ready to dig into their pockets, here are four tips to make an impact with your gift.

Sort the Lists

You can find comprehensive lists of charities fighting Ebola from organizations that vet nonprofits like Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.

These lists can be overwhelming. Charity Navigator, for instance, identifies 45 charities with top accountability ratings aiding in the fight against Ebola and also helping victims.

Doctors Without Borders, which has been extremely visible throughout the outbreak that has claimed nearly 5,000 lives, tops most lists.

The organization, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, announced it is budgeting $64 million for its work fighting Ebola. It has raised at least $35 million in private donations and secured $25 million in institutional funding. The group operates six Ebola case management centers, with about 600 beds that are in isolation. It has treated 3,200 confirmed Ebola cases.

Also among those recommended by Charity Navigator are Pennsylvania-based Brother’s Brother Foundation (which distributes medical supplies), the Missouri-based humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope, and some better-known charities including the United States Fund for UNICEF, Oxfam America, and Save the Children.

Give Broadly

While donors want to know their donation is going for a specific purpose, such as helping victims in a specific country, Ken Berger, chief executive officer of Charity Navigator, says that’s not always the ideal way to go.

It’s best to give to an organization whose overall mission you trust and allow the group to decide where the money can be used, Berger says. Saying you only want the cash to go for a certain medication, for instance, could hamstring an organization that already has an abundant supply of the drug but needs cash for other purposes.

Some noteworthy organizations include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged $50 million, committing the first $12 million to the World Health Organization, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another option is the CDC Foundation, which was created by Congress as a non-profit that raises money in support of the CDC. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $25 million to the foundation.

Donate Your Vacation Time

If you don’t have cash to spare, you can now give away your unused vacation time. The Internal Revenue Service this week added to the mix of donation options specifically related to the Ebola outbreak by allowing American workers to donate vacation, sick time, or personal leave.

Under the IRS guidelines, employees give vacation hours back to their employer who converts those hours into cash. Donating the funds to tax-exempt organizations working to help Ebola victims in Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone qualifies for a tax break. And the employees don’t have the money counted as income, under this arrangement, which has been used for previous natural disasters.

Beware of Scammers

The biggest trouble spots for potential donors are crowdfunding sites along with social media because they can appear legitimate but lack verification.

“Anybody can put up a crowdfunding site and promise to do something,” Wise Giving Alliance chief operating officer Bennett Weiner says.

Hundreds of such sites already exist, such as one that purported to benefit a Dallas nurse who had been infected. It was removed after her family members objected.

Tips from the Federal Trade Commission to avoid Ebola-related fund-raising scams include:

  • Avoid charities that appear to have “sprung up overnight in connection with current events.”
  • Be wary of charities whose websites or names are similar to those of established charities.
  • If you receive a call from a solicitor, and you’re interested, ask who they work for and the percentage of the donation that goes to both the fund-raising firm and the charity. Lack of a clear, direct answer is a red flag.
  • Do not send cash. You won’t know the money went where it was supposed to and you won’t have a record.

 

MONEY Odd Spending

8 Ways Somebody Is Making Money Off Ebola Fears

Clorox and Lysol on shelves in store
Patti McConville—Alamy

The buzz over Ebola has triggered sales that might be described as overboard (body suits), ironic (Ebola Halloween costumes), or downright bizarre (protective masks featuring a hip-hop artist's face).

On Monday, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola outbreak is officially over in Nigeria. Yet fears of the deadly virus continue to grip the world, meaning that sales of Ebola-related products like these are likely to continue being strong.

Anti-Germ Products
Disinfectants, Clorox, Lysol, and hand sanitizer are among the germ-fighting products that have experienced a boost in sales since Ebola fears have hit the U.S. and other nations. In a recent four-week period, for instance, Clorox sales were up 28%. Anecdotally, travelers report that hand sanitizer and other anti-germ products are appearing more often near the checkout areas of airport shops, though that may be partly just because it’s flu season.

Protective Gear
After word spread that someone in the U.S. was being treated for Ebola, sales of medical-grade masks, gloves, body suits, and other protective gear made by one Chicago-area firm spiked. The number of phone calls the company handled increased fivefold almost overnight, and sales of face masks jumped by 40%. Sales of a wide variety of infection protection and doomsday prep kits have soared as well. And speculative investors see opportunity in the situation, too. One day in early October, the stock price of Lakeland Industries—which manufactures industrial protective gear worn by professionals who might come into contact with dangerous chemicals and viruses—surged more than 50% (before retreating significantly of late).

Hip-Hop Ebola Masks
Basic polypropylene masks sell for less thanb 10 cents apiece when purchased in bulk. But when you’re going to the trouble of protecting yourself from germs with a mask, why not go the extra step and protect yourself in style? That, presumably, is the sales pitch from the rapper Cam’ron, who is selling polypropylene masks for $19.99 each, featuring an image of his likeness on them—oddly, while he’s speaking on a pink flip phone. Perhaps even more oddly, the item is only available for preorder at the moment. “Ships 11/7/14,” the order page explains. You’ll have to hold your breath or (gasp!) use a lame, basic mask until then.

Ebola Halloween Costumes
Thanks to the world’s lightning-fast-moving attention span, we’re guaranteed that anything that’s been buzzing in the news or has achieved meme status in October is bound to pop up in some form as a Halloween costume. Even if it’s a subject as grim and deadly serious as Ebola. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the “hot costume” label has been applied to Ebola-related outfits, including Ebola containment workers, Ebola victims, and Ebola zombies.

Ebola Toys
To be fair to Giant Microbes, the Connecticut-based “Learning & Fun” company has been manufacturing plush toy versions of Bed Bugs, Chickenpox, Dengue Fever, Black Death, and no fewer than three Ebola products long before Ebola sales became trendy. In any event, sales of Giant Microbes’ “uniquely contagious” Ebola toys have been off the charts since the virus became a mainstay on cable TV news; the company has been completely sold out for days.

Fake Charity Scams
The Better Business Bureau warned consumers about “a variety of Ebola-related scams and problematic fundraisers” that have popped up in recent days, including crowdfunding ventures that aren’t necessarily providing any aid to Ebola victims and sketchy phone solicitations that aren’t tied to any genuine, known charities.

Vitamin C
Essential oils and herbal remedies are among the many unproven “cures” that have been suggested as strategies for fighting off Ebola, but of all the groundless theories for protecting oneself, none has gotten more attention than Vitamin C. One opportunistic New York businessman has been selling up to 14,000 packages per day lately of a supplement with 554% of the daily recommended intake of Vitamin C—which he packages under the name Ebola-C.

Science blogs have felt compelled to combat the misinformation, describing one effort to pump up sales of the vitamin as a “particularly irresponsible bit of quackery promotion.” In a Los Angeles Times story about purported Ebola “cures,” Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and professor of medicine at New York University, said that while Vitamin C is part of a healthy diet and helps build up one’s immune system, “there’s no evidence it has any effect on infectious disease” when taken in higher doses. What’s more, “all this quack stuff takes money and effort away” from legitimate research devoted to coping with Ebola and other health dangers.

Web URLs
In 2008, a forward-thinking entrepreneur named Jon Schultz purchased the Ebola.com URL for $13,500. He’s now willing to part with control of the site for a mere $150,000, the Washington Post reported.

TIME Video Games

Anyone Claiming There’s a Grand Theft Auto V Beta Is Still Lying

It's not clear when or where the scams are occurring, but they're scams, each and every one.

For once, I’ve learned about a bizarre scam from the object of the scam instead of the scammers: Rockstar would like you to know that if you happen upon a site or person or email claiming there’s a Grand Theft Auto V beta, you risk being duped.

“Please note,” writes Rockstar in an undated web notice, “there is no pre-release ‘beta’ test for Grand Theft Auto V. If you see ads or solicitations to join a beta program, beware as this is likely some type of online phishing scam.”

If that parses a little weirdly to you, it’s because you’re probably thinking, “But Grand Theft Auto V’s already out, isn’t it?” Indeed, the game arrived last September for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. This presumably relates to the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions due on November 18, followed by a Windows version on January 27, 2015. I’ll say again: presumably.

I’m assuming it’s not some kind of bizarre prerelease viral marketing thing, though it is a little odd-looking, poking around the echo chamber and finding no paper trails. No one seems to have evidence of the scam itself, and sites writing about supposed fake Steam betas and 19GB of virus-choked malware all seem to be linking to a site called Xboxer360, which hasn’t posted a news update in 10 months, and whose story about a Grand Theft Auto V beta scam is over a year old. Search on the phrase “GTA V PC torrent” and you’ll find a variety of links to obvious (well, obvious to me) shysters, but whose fake listings are pretty old.

I’ve asked my contact at Rockstar to verify this beta notice is indeed new. In any event, now that I’ve expended over 300 words writing about it, whether the scams are fresh or you’re a time traveler about to embark in your TARDIS on a trip to visit the nefarious corners of the interwebs circa late 2013, beware Grand Theft Auto V beta claims: they’re phony bologna.

[Update: I knew it. My Rockstar contact just confirmed the link up top is to an old 2013 warning. So consider yourself warned. Again.]

MONEY Taxes

Don’t Fall for the ‘Steve Martin’ IRS Phone Call Scam

Caller ID showing phone scam
Rod Crow—Alamy

Callers claiming to be government agents with names like "Steve Martin" and "Jack Dawson" say that you owe unpaid taxes, and you'll be arrested asap if you don't pay up. It's a big scam—apparently, one that's spreading.

A phone scam that first appeared nationally a year ago and has ripped off victims for more than $5 million is showing no signs of slowing down. In October 2013, the IRS issued a warning concerning a “pervasive telephone scam” that had popped in nearly every state in the country—victimizing recent immigrants in particular—that played out in the following way:

Victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting.

The Treasury Inspector General for the Taxpayer Administration (TIGTA) and the FTC followed up with warnings about the scam during tax season, by which time more than 20,000 suspect calls had been reported, and victims had been bilked of more than $1 million. Based on how lucrative this con has been for fraudsters, it’s no wonder that the calls keep on coming. By August, the IRS was compelled to send out another warning, alerting the public that the number of complaints about such calls had surpassed 90,000, and losses by victims had exceeded $5 million.

In recent weeks, amid continued reports in Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, and other states, the FBI issued an alert with more details about the “intimidation tactics” used by callers. There may be threats to “confiscate the recipient’s property, freeze bank accounts, and have the recipient arrested and placed in jail. The reported alleged charges include defrauding the government, money owed for back taxes, law suits pending against the recipient, and nonpayment of taxes. The recipients are advised that it will cost thousands of dollars in fees/court costs to resolve this matter.”

It has been widely mentioned on scam warning Internet forums that the voices on the end of the threatening phone calls often have thick accents—variously described as Indian, Middle Eastern, or Asian—and that they identify themselves as IRS agents with names that are sometimes generic American (Julie Smith, John Parker, Barry Foster) and other times seem pulled directly from Hollywood movies. “Steve Martin,” the original “Wild and Crazy Guy,” is one of the favorite fake names used by the scammers. “Jack Dawson,” the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic character in “Titanic,” is another. At times, the callers have been known to become abusive and use foul language, telling the call recipients, “Don’t be stupid” and “your ass will wind up in jail.”

All of these “problems” can go away, the scammers say, if the victim makes a payment of $500 or $1,500 immediately—ideally in an entirely untraceable way, such as a prepaid money card or wire transfer.

Before rolling your eyes and thinking you’d never fall for such a scam, note that the con involves a caller ID trick that makes it look like the call is originating from a number that is indeed used by an IRS office. Yet as the FTC warned, “You can’t rely on caller ID. Scammers know how to rig it to show you the wrong information (aka “spoofing”).” What’s more, callers often have some of the victim’s personal information handy, such as the last four digits of a social security number. Further calls and bogus “IRS” emails may follow the original call, in order to the make the demand for payment seem more legitimate.

Rest assured, it’s not. If you’re at all uncertain if you’re dealing with a scammer, bear in mind the following:

• The IRS almost always contacts people about unpaid taxes first by mail, not by phone.

• The IRS never asks for immediate payment over the phone, never requests payment information (for example, a debit card number) over the phone, and never specifies a certain form of payment for unpaid taxes.

• It is not standard procedure for IRS agents to call after normal office hours are over, nor to threaten people that more calls will follow if you don’t comply immediately, nor to swear at taxpayers.

If you do get a call that you suspect to be a scam, do NOT give out or confirm any personal information, and most certainly do NOT wire money or make payment of any sort. Hang up the phone right away, and then report the incident at the TIGTA hotline (800-366-4484). File a complaint with the FTC as well.

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