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.
HASTE MAKES WASTE
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 firstname.lastname@example.org