Bah humbug side of Christmas

’Tis the sea­son for shop­pers to ex­er­cise cau­tion as they carry items to their cars. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

It’s a hol­i­day jungle out there. Thieves are eye­ing your shop­ping bags. Crooks are siz­ing you up as a tar­get for ID theft. And if that’s not scary enough, oth­er people are sneez­ing germs all over you. What’s an em­battled shop­per to do?

Some ill winds blow through the hol­i­days.

Crooks are every­where. They’re on the street, peep­ing in win­dows or trolling the In­ter­net for suck­ers. There’s sick­ness, too; the Christ­mas sea­son also is flu sea­son.

So, like the song says, you bet­ter watch out.

Purse-snatch­ers and oth­er fast-fingered thieves are on the prowl while you’re out shop­ping.

Here are a few tips for shop­pers from Capt. Frank Bach­may­er, com­mand­er of the 15th Po­lice Dis­trict:

• Try to shop dur­ing day­light hours. If you can’t, try to shop with someone.

• Keep aware of where you are and who’s nearby. Be wary of strangers ap­proach­ing you for any reas­on.

• Con artists will try to dis­tract you to make off with your money or your pur­chases.

• Don’t carry large amounts of cash.

• Don’t leave pack­ages or valu­ables on your car seats. Lock them in your trunk. And po­lice have been stress­ing that this ap­plies to you even if your car is in front of your home or parked in your drive­way.

• Check your auto be­fore get­ting in for people hid­ing in it or near it.

• Don’t leave your car un­oc­cu­pied with the mo­tor run­ning or with chil­dren in­side.

Po­lice also sug­gest that shop­pers keep their keys sep­ar­ate from their wal­lets or purses, so they can at least drive home if their wal­lets or hand­bags are stolen. Use ATMs that are in­side, not out­side, and put your money away be­fore you go back out­side.

If some­body bumps in­to you, pull away. That per­son might be try­ing to lift money or cred­it cards. Don’t put your cell phone or laptop on a store counter “just for a minute.” People who swipe things for a liv­ing only need a few seconds to grab it and van­ish.


Some thieves start out as in­vis­ible to their vic­tims. They work the In­ter­net or phones to trick people in­to either send­ing them money or giv­ing up enough per­son­al in­form­a­tion that the per­son be­comes a vic­tim of identi­fy theft.

And it’s not just your home com­puter or home phones that these wicked Web wiz­ards are us­ing. Now they’re com­ing at you through your mo­bile devices, said Gary Dav­is, dir­ect­or of con­sumer products mar­ket­ing at McAfee, the In­ter­net se­cur­ity com­pany.

Some of these hack­ers are tar­get­ing An­droid phones, Dav­is said. Some are us­ing QR codes —- those oddly shaped black-and-white cre­ations that are the size of a stamp and full of in­form­a­tion – to load ma­li­cious soft­ware, or mal­ware, in­to phones. The mal­ware looks for per­son­al in­form­a­tion and gets it to the hack­ers, who sell it to iden­tity thieves.

“If you’re us­ing a smart phone for bank­ing and shop­ping,” Dav­is said, “you might not be pro­tec­ted.”

One of the ways to stop the growth of these mo­bile-phone at­tacks is to pur­chase your phone apps only from reput­able re­tail­ers you know.


Hack­ers are us­ing so­cial net­work­ing sites to gath­er vic­tims too, Dav­is said.

For ex­ample, some­body’s Face­book page all of a sud­den might have a $100 gift cer­ti­fic­ate for a fam­ous res­taur­ant chain. The vis­it­ors to the page click on it and then mal­ware is loaded onto their com­puters and maybe gets trans­ferred to all their Face­book friends.

Face­book will get wise and shut down the page with that cer­ti­fic­ate, Dav­is said, but per­haps not be­fore sev­er­al people have in­fec­ted com­puters.

Phony of­fers of dis­counts or premi­um gifts like gift cards or trendy elec­tron­ics are ac­com­pan­ied by ques­tions or sur­veys de­signed to coax vic­tims to provide per­son­al in­form­a­tion that can be used by ID thieves. Since so many people spend so much money dur­ing the hol­i­days, the crooks are work­ing their vic­tims’ zeal for a deal.

Some of the of­fers are really ri­dicu­lous, and that should tip people.

“Nobody gives away an iPod a day,” Dav­is said.

There was a Black Fri­day scam on one site, he said. Those who clicked on a $50 gift card down­loaded mal­ware, which star­ted col­lect­ing their per­son­al in­form­a­tion.

The trouble is that hack­ers have be­come more soph­ist­ic­ated in cre­at­ing phony In­ter­net sites, Dav­is said.

“It’s al­most im­possible to see (a site) is not the of­fi­cial site,” he said.


The oth­er prob­lem is that people are rush­ing through sur­veys and not pay­ing at­ten­tion to what they’re do­ing.

People 50 and older are be­ing tar­geted most, Dav­is said. They gen­er­ally are new­er to com­puter use or mo­bile devices, so they’re more at­tract­ive to hack­ers.

Stick to re­la­tion­ships with re­tail­ers and char­it­ies — and people — you know. And be aware that no bank or gov­ern­ment agency is go­ing to e-mail you a re­quest for ac­count num­bers or a So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber.

It isn’t just phony mem­bers of the Ni­geri­an roy­al fam­ily who will try to lure you in­to e-mail scams. Char­it­able ap­peals from less-than-char­it­able con artists also prey on hol­i­day good will.

The best ad­vice from McAfee is to de­lete such ap­peals. If you want to give to a char­ity, call that or­gan­iz­a­tion or go to the char­ity’s Web site to learn about mak­ing dona­tions.


Last year, when Gov. Tom Corbett was state at­tor­ney gen­er­al, his of­fice is­sued some sug­ges­tions for on­line shop­pers:

• Watch out for look-alike Web sites used by scam artists to steal cred­it-card in­form­a­tion. That site might not ac­tu­ally be op­er­ated by a well-known re­tail­er.

• Be­fore shop­ping on­line, make sure your com­puter anti-vir­us pro­gram and fire­wall are up to date.

• Re­view re­fund and re­turn policies.

• Make sure you know the ship­ping and hand­ling fees while look­ing for the best price. The item might seem cheap­er but could turn out to be very ex­pens­ive when ship­ping and hand­ling costs are ad­ded.

Many In­ter­net scams are vari­ations of phone scams, and con men still use phones to help them steal. It’s just as risky to give per­son­al in­form­a­tion over the phone as it is over the In­ter­net. An­oth­er safe­guard is to im­me­di­ately check all cred­it card and bank state­ments and im­me­di­ately call your in­sti­tu­tion if you see any un­au­thor­ized charges.

When you get your Christ­mas presents home, don’t stack them near a win­dow where any­one might look in and de­cide to break in for your mer­chand­ise, Bach­may­er said.

The cap­tain sug­ges­ted not “ad­vert­ising” the gifts you get, either. Des­troy boxes and put them out at the time of trash col­lec­tion so oth­ers won’t know there’s a pricey new TV in your house.

Watch out for crim­in­als who pose as cour­i­ers de­liv­er­ing gifts; be just as wary of so­li­cit­ors who go door to door and claim to be ac­cept­ing dona­tions for char­it­ies. Ask for IDs while keep­ing storm doors or screen doors locked, Bach­may­er said.


Then there are the cooties that stole Christ­mas.

Noth­ing quite like catch­ing a cold, or worse, the flu, over the hol­i­days so you can ho-ho hack in­to the New Year.

A little aware­ness and some pre­cau­tions might help you to avoid get­ting sick. First, get a flu vac­cin­a­tion, said Jeff Di­mond, a spokes­man for the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion in At­lanta.

“That’s the most im­port­ant step you can take,” he said. “The flu vac­cine is plen­ti­ful, safe and cheap.”

If that isn’t in­cent­ive enough to get the shot, con­sider this: Flu sea­son is just be­gin­ning, Di­mond said re­cently. The CDC es­tim­ates that 20 per­cent of us will get it or have severe flu-like symp­toms. That means one in five of the people you shake hands with, hug, ride the bus with or share an of­fice with has the flu.

So why should you get it?

You can keep a little dis­tance between your­self and some­body who is ill, but that’s not al­ways pos­sible. You’ve prob­ably heard that the next big step is to wash your hands in warm soapy wa­ter as of­ten as you can, or use hand san­it­izer. You heard right.

Think of all the places you put your hands dur­ing the day, Di­mond said. Then con­sider that the flu vir­us can live up to six hours on any hard sur­face –— es­cal­at­or rail­ing, el­ev­at­or but­ton, key­board, phone, coun­ter­top or self-serve gas pump.

The things that you touch might have been touched by someone who has the flu. So, wash your hands.

And one oth­er thing — try not to touch your eyes, mouth or nose if you haven’t washed your hands, he said. Those are the places where the flu vir­us enters your body.

If you’re sick, Di­mond said, stay home from work and take a pass on hol­i­day parties — even if your symp­toms have ceased. You re­main con­ta­gious 24 hours after your symp­toms have passed, he said. If you can get to a doc­tor when your symp­toms ap­pear, ask if an anti-vir­al medi­cine can help.

Since food is a big part of hol­i­day fest­iv­it­ies, re­duce your chances of a health threat by be­ing mind­ful of these CDC re­com­mend­a­tions:

• Be­sides keep­ing hands clean, wash cut­ting boards, utensils and coun­ter­tops.

• Keep raw red meat, poultry and sea­food sep­ar­ate from ready-to-eat foods.

• Use a food ther­mo­met­er to en­sure that foods are cooked to a safe in­tern­al tem­per­at­ure: 145 F for whole meats (al­low­ing the meat to rest for three minutes be­fore carving or con­sum­ing), 160 F for ground meats, and 165 F for all poultry.

• Keep your re­fri­ger­at­or be­low 40 F, and re­fri­ger­ate food that will spoil.

• Be es­pe­cially care­ful when pre­par­ing food for chil­dren, preg­nant wo­men, those in poor health, and older adults. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or

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