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FBI: Seasonal scammers are online too!

“Oh, you better watch out…” Cyber shoppers should take heed of the familiar holiday song’s timeless refrain.

With holiday shopping in full swing and recession-wearied shoppers hunting for irresistibly good buys, it’s a safe assumption that crooks and scammers are baiting their traps with deals too good to be true.

On Cyber Monday, the first Monday after Thanksgiving and the unofficial kick-off of the online holiday shopping season, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) issued an alert reminding shoppers to be prudent with their purse strings and personal information.

“Cyber criminals continue to aggressively create new ways to steal money and personal information,” the alert states. Among the scams that prompt some 30,000 complaints each month to IC3, through its website, are:

Bogus online classified ads and auctions: Criminals post products they don’t have, or, in some cases, use stolen credit card numbers to purchase merchandise they offer in auctions. In another scam, criminals may promise free delivery and provide customers with free “paid” shipping labels that are fake and won’t be honored by shippers.
Tips: Don’t provide financial information directly to sellers—use a legitimate payment service. Check each seller’s feedback ratings and proven track record.
Phony gift cards: As with merchandise, be cautious about buying gift cards through classifieds or auctions.
Tip: Buy directly from a merchant or authorized retailer. Counterfeit cards won’t be honored.
Phishing: These time-tested scams arrive by e-mail or text message, directing recipients to follow a link or call a number to correct or update account information. Would-be victims are sent to fraudulent or spoofed websites that look legitimate and directed to provide their account information and personal details.
Tips: Don’t respond to unsolicited e-mail. Don’t click on e-mail links or download attachments from unknown senders.

The leading retail association predicted 96 million Americans would shop online on Cyber Monday alone, and millions more during the month of December. For criminals, the numbers spell opportunity. Shoppers, meanwhile, should exercise the same caution they would in a crowded mall—eyes wide open, protecting themselves and their money.

“If you’re shopping online, make sure the website is secure and it’s not a cloned website,” says Supervisory Special Agent Leslie Hoppey, acting unit chief of the Internet Crime Complaint Center. “If you want to deal with a business, go directly to their official website.”

IC3 last year received more than 275,000 complaints and reported losses of $265 million—an average of $931 per complaint. The most common complaints in 2008 were non-delivered merchandise or payment (32 percent) and auction fraud (25 percent).

Agent Hoppey offers some additional tips—have the latest version of security software installed on your computer and make sure online transactions are secure. And she offers a holiday classic as time-honored as re-gifting: “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

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