Elliott Greenblott | Fraud watch: The holiday season requires vigilance

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Holiday scams are unending. Where to focus — the newest scams, the most effective, the most unique? Here are what I consider to be some of the most damaging scams this holiday season.

Before discussing these, remember that the key to self-defense is education. A good start should include registration for consumer alerts that are free to the public. Here are four national alert systems: AARP Fraud Watch Network, the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Consumers League. In addition, state agencies may issue periodic alerts through the attorneys general or consumer protection offices. Here in Vermont, the attorney general operates the Vermont Consumer Assistance Program.

Here are my 5 holiday scams of special note in 2019:

The Santa letter scam

This one often appears as a "special offer" in an email that directs you to a commercial web site. The general approach is to sell some family member a "personalized" letter from Santa to that special child. The letter may include the names of a child's best friends and possibly include the child's name on a list of "nice" children. Frequently the promotion includes an opportunity to purchase a gift for the child. The vendor will request personal information for the letter as well as credit card details in order to process payment. Not all of these offers are fraudulent but determining which ones are legitimate may be impossible. A wiser approach to the "Letter from Santa" involves checking your community for local organizations or high school clubs that use this type of activity as a fund-raiser.

Medicare scams: Round II

With the annual open enrollment opportunity ending in early December, con artists are turning to impersonation of Medicare employees who are allegedly attempting to verify individual status of those enrolled. Medicare does not conduct this type of activity and, in fact, does not transact business over the telephone. If you receive any call from an individual claiming to be calling from Medicare, hang up and contact CMS/Medicare at 800-633-4227.On-line shopping scams

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Beware of any unsolicited offers you receive from merchants by phone or email. In particular, avoid merchants you do not recognize and those offering deep discounts on brand-name, highly popular items. Check out the merchant by contacting your state consumer protection office or the Better Business Bureau. You may also want to conduct a personal web search of the merchant in order to determine whether or not there are any red flags. Above all, do not provide any personal or payment information until you are absolutely certain of the vendor's legitimacy.

Fake or deceptive on-line surveys

- These "promotions" display what appears to be a gift card from a major retailer stating that you have won or are eligible to win a prize.. You are then asked to enter an email address and other personal information in order to verify your identity. This is inevitably followed by a series of questions and merchandise, service, or magazine offers. In most cases the message recipient decides against applying for the offers being made and discontinues the survey. Sadly, by then the damage has been done. In most of these situations, the sender is attempting to collect personal information and preferences; information which after collection is then sold to other marketers. The best approach to take with these messages is to simply ignore and delete them. (The reality is that businesses do not offer cash gift cards to random recipients no strings attached.)

Fraudulent Wi-Fi access

With the increase in communication devices (smart phone, tablets, laptops), consumers are finding an growing need to access the internet using free public WiFi. Most of these connections are insecure and many are easily compromised. An unencrypted network allows for virtually any user to eavesdrop on communications by any other user. Stay safe. Avoid free public WiFi unless you utilize a VPN (Virtual Private Network) as well as password and firewall protection.

Questions, comments, concerns? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org. You can also call AARP's fraud hotline at 877-908-3360.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. He produces a feature CATV program, "Mr. Scammer," distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland.


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