Holidays’ dark side

Shop care­fully: While shop­pers look for hol­i­day bar­gains, they should be look­ing over their shoulders and watch­ing their steps so they can avoid the crim­in­als who are watch­ing them. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Crooks love the hol­i­days. Their im­meas­ur­able bad will is the yin for the yang of every­body else’s yu­letide gen­er­os­ity and good cheer.

After all, why wouldn’t crim­in­als en­joy Christ­mas? There are just so many cars to break in­to, houses to burgle and purses to snatch. There are trinkets to shoplift, IDs to swipe and con marks to catch. 

Over the years, cops, pro­sec­utors and cy­ber se­cur­ity ex­perts have been warn­ing hol­i­day shop­pers that they bet­ter watch out — on the street, in the stores, on the phone or in the Great Blue Nowhere of the In­ter­net.

“There’s al­ways some­body look­ing to sep­ar­ate you from your money,” Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams stated Nov. 26. “The best course of ac­tion is pre­ven­tion. Many thieves choose their vic­tims be­cause the thieves see an op­por­tun­ity. If you take away the op­por­tun­ity, chances are you won’t be­come a vic­tim.”   Here’s a sum­mary of hol­i­day tips:

— When you shop, park in vis­ible spots un­der street­lights, and don’t for­get to lock your car, take your keys and not leave any­thing vis­ible in your car. One little pack­age or even a small amount of money is enough in­cent­ive, po­lice have said, for some­body to use their “key” to get in­to your car. What’s their “key?” A rock, a bat, brick, any­thing hard enough to smash auto glass. There are thieves who stake out park­ing lots. They will no­tice if you make re­peated trips from stores to your car. It’s not the kind of at­ten­tion you want.

— Don’t think your car is im­mune to break-ins when it’s parked in front of your house or in your drive­way. It isn’t. If you leave pur­chases in your car and that car is vis­ible from the street or side­walk, you might as well put a sign on your win­dow that reads, “Come and get it!”

— Nev­er leave a car that’s un­locked and run­ning “just for a minute.”

— Use ATMs that are in­side, not out­side and ex­posed. Put your money away be­fore you go out. And be care­ful which ATMs you use. Stick to ones you’ve used already and avoid ones that might be dum­mies set up to get your ac­count num­ber.

— Use a pre­paid card or a cred­it card when you shop, the DA ad­vised. Pre­paid cards have some of the same anti-fraud and se­cur­ity sys­tems that cred­it cards do, but have the ad­ded be­ne­fit of keep­ing the shop­per with­in a budget. 

— When you shop, keep your keys and money sep­ar­ate. If some­body swipes your wal­let or purse, at least you’ll be able to drive home and get in your house.

— Many people have re­motes they can use to lock or un­lock their cars. Many of those re­motes have horn but­tons that are handy ways to find cars in a crowded lot. It also can be used to scare off thieves and burg­lars. Keep it in your hand while you’re go­ing to your car for hol­i­day shop­ping. Hit the horn but­ton if any­one sus­pi­cious comes near you. You might want to con­sider, po­lice have ad­vised, to keep that re­mote in your bed­room at night and hit the horn but­ton if you hear an in­truder in your house. You prob­ably won’t be pop­u­lar with your neigh­bors for do­ing that, but it just might scare off an in­truder.

— You don’t have to walk around look­ing para­noid, but you shouldn’t be care­less. Put­ting your phone or a cred­it card down on a store counter is care­less. Leav­ing a hand­bag in a shop­ping cart while you reach for something from a shelf is really care­less. Turn away for a second or two, and see how fast stuff dis­ap­pears. Your cred­it card should not leave your hands if it doesn’t have to.

— Don’t buy elec­tron­ics from strangers in park­ing lots. “It’s al­ways a scam,” Wil­li­ams said. You might get offered a $1,000 item for $100 or $200, but when you get the box home, it’s filled with trash or junk.

— Take only what you need when you’re shop­ping. Ex­tra cred­it cards, your lib­rary card, your So­cial Se­cur­ity card and your dry clean­er re­ceipts don’t have to go with you, do they? If you’re pay­ing cash, take only the cash you need.

— Thieves will try to dis­tract you. Some­body who tries to en­gage you in con­ver­sa­tion, or bump in­to you, might be try­ing to lift your wal­let or cred­it cards. Step back.

— Don’t walk around or wait for a bus with your smart­phone out. Phil­adelphia has been the hot­test spot in the na­tion for phone thefts. Po­lice of­ficers have been ur­ging people not to make a pub­lic dis­play of these ex­pens­ive items. A thief might get some dol­lars by lift­ing your wal­let or rob­bing you, but the guy who takes your phone gets something worth, per­haps, hun­dreds of dol­lars that is eas­ily con­cealed and fairly eas­ily fenced.

— Burg­lary is a big prob­lem every­where. Lock your doors and your win­dows. Don’t step down the street for some eggnog with a neigh­bor and leave your doors un­locked and think everything is OK be­cause you’re just a few doors away. Even a first-time burg­lar can be in and out of your house, haul­ing away your hol­i­day in a mat­ter of minutes. If you stack your gifts near a win­dow that any pass­er-by can look in,  you might as well put that sign men­tioned above in the win­dow.

— And you might as well put it on­line, too, if you post pic­tures and com­ments from your hol­i­day va­ca­tion while you’re still on va­ca­tion. Burg­lars really ap­pre­ci­ate know­ing when you’re away, how far you’re away and for how long.

— When Gov. Tom Corbett was at­tor­ney gen­er­al, he ad­vised con­sumers to shred all un­wanted cred­it card and oth­er fin­an­cial junk mail so iden­tity thieves don’t get hold of any of your per­son­al in­form­a­tion.

— Don’t give out per­son­al in­form­a­tion over the In­ter­net or over the phone. Iden­tity thieves might pose as rep­res­ent­at­ives of banks, In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders or gov­ern­ment agen­cies to try to get you to give up per­son­al in­form­a­tion. Once an iden­tity thief gets your So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber or cred­it card num­ber, there’s prac­tic­ally no end to the misery you can be caused.

— Re­view your bank and cred­it card state­ments im­me­di­ately to check for charges you know aren’t yours, and no­ti­fy your bank or cred­it card com­pany im­me­di­ately if you find any.

— Check your cred­it his­tory reg­u­larly. Every con­sumer can ob­tain their free an­nu­al cred­it re­port at­nu­al­creditre­

— Watch out for look-alike web­sites used by con artists who set them up to steal cred­it card in­form­a­tion.

This year, con­sumers set a new re­cord for on­line pur­chases on Cy­ber Monday, the Monday after Thanks­giv­ing. More and more people are surf­ing the Web to find their gifts. That, of course, means that more and more crim­in­als are surf­ing that same Web for op­por­tun­it­ies to en­rich them­selves at your ex­pense.

Rak­ing in the cash is the goal of any In­ter­net con, so be wary of swell of­fers that just ap­pear in your email in­box. Ap­peals from char­it­ies over the phone or through your email ac­count might be from no­good­niks who want to get rich quick.

Free gift cards that seem to be from well-known re­tail­ers are a dodge that’s been pop­u­lar for a few years now. Usu­ally, they do noth­ing but lure you to a phony site in which you’re asked to give up in­form­a­tion that will be use­ful to iden­tity thieves.

Steep dis­counts on elec­tron­ics should be red flags to con­sumers. Nobody is go­ing to sell a di­git­al cam­era for $5 or an iPod for $10. “There are dozens of fake on­line elec­tron­ics stores,” Wil­li­ams said, “that don’t even have an in­vent­ory, and they won’t ship any­thing you or­der. They’re only out to get your cred­it card num­ber.”

Some­times, crooks get in­to some­body’s email ac­count and start send­ing emails to every­one on the per­son’s con­tact list. 

It’s usu­ally a ver­sion of the old phone scam of “I’m stuck in jail out of state and need bail money” or “My wal­let was stolen out of state and I need money to get home.” It’s non­sense that makes dol­lars for people you don’t know and wouldn’t want to know.

If you’re ap­proached by someone who claims to rep­res­ent a char­ity, go dir­ectly to the char­ity if you’re moved to make a dona­tion.   

Wil­li­ams ad­vised against down­load­ing phone apps from any­thing but app stores. Be wary of re­spond­ing to emails. Avoid too-good-to-be true of­fers on so­cial me­dia from people you don’t know.

He also ad­vised con­sumers to use dif­fer­ent pass­words with dif­fer­ent on­line re­tail­ers. 

“On­line re­tail­ers are routinely hacked and their data­bases are com­prom­ised. This means that, if you used the same pass­word as your email or bank ac­count, your ac­count se­cur­ity goes out the win­dow,” Wil­li­ams said.

Best prac­tice is prob­ably to deal only with on­line busi­nesses with whom you already have es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ships. Ditto for char­it­ies. “You might be temp­ted by amaz­ing deals on sites you nev­er heard of, but it’s safer to stay away,” Wil­li­ams said. 

If you don’t know ’em already, maybe you should wait un­til the hol­i­days, with all their var­ied stresses, are in your book of golden memor­ies be­fore get­ting ac­quain­ted.

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