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  • AARP survey: Maine shoppers susceptible to holiday scams

         With Black Friday and the launch of the holiday shopping season just days away, AARP Maine is releasing a new survey from the AARP Fraud Watch Network.  The survey found that 63 percent of Maine consumers failed a quiz about how to stay safe from common holiday scams, and many are regularly engaging in behaviors which put them at risk of being victimized by con artists.

    A report, Beware the Grinch: Consumers at Risk of Being Scammed During the Holidays, details AARP’s polling of Maine residents regarding the most common holiday scams, including those related to charitable giving, gift cards, package deliveries, and use of public Wi-Fi.  The survey included seven questions about scams, with 63% of the survey participants answering four or fewer of the questions correctly.

    “While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts,” said Jane Margesson, AARP Maine Communications Director.  “We’re encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season.”

    Prompted by the survey results, the Fraud Watch Network has launched an education campaign, including a new web page, designed to educate the public about the top five holiday scams:

    Charitable Giving? Ask and Check

    Last year, Americans gave $358 billion dollars to charity according to the National Philanthropic Trust.  Government officials who regulate charities and fundraisers say that while most charities are legitimate, there are many fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who keep 85-90 percent of the money they raise. 

    AARP’s survey found that 65 percent of Mainers who donated to a charity or fundraiser in the past 12 months did so without asking any questions about how that donation would be spent, and 61 percent made donations without verifying that the charity groups were legally authorized to raise money in their state.

    About one third of Maine consumers don’t know (16 percent) or aren’t sure (14 percent) that, in most states, professional fundraisers must be registered with the government and report how much they raise and how much goes to the charitable purpose.  Almost none (1 percent) could correctly name the government agency they should contact to verify the legitimacy of the charity or fundraiser (Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation).

    Gift Cards: Skip the Rack

    Fraud experts report that thieves sometimes hit store gift card racks, secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the scammers drain the funds. By the time you try to use the same card, the money is long gone. 

    Fifty-one percent of respondents in the FWN survey report they will buy gift cards from a rack at a big box store, pharmacy or grocery store this holiday season.  Nearly four in ten (39 percent) do not realize that gift cards purchased from a gift card rack at a grocery store are NOT as safe from hackers or thieves as gift cards purchased online.

    Consider Swiping that Other Card

    Consumer protection experts recommend the use of credit cards rather than debit cards for most purchases, to better protect consumers from fraud and theft.  With credit cards, you are liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use. But in the case of a lost or stolen debit card, financial losses to the consumer can be much more significant. 

     Two thirds of Maine holiday shoppers surveyed said they will buy holiday gifts this year using a debit card.

    Public Wi-Fi: Surf Safely, or It Could Empty Your Account

    Many holiday shoppers incorrectly believe that it is safe to access sensitive information via free Wi-Fi networks as long as websites are secured by “https.”  In fact, online security experts warn that consumers should never use public Wi-Fi to access bank accounts or to buy products online. 

    The survey indicates that 54% of internet users in this survey say they will use free public Wi-Fi.  Many of them, while using public Wi-Fi, will make purchases (45%), access their bank accounts (27%), and check their credit card accounts (19%).

     

    Require a Package Delivery Sign Off

    More than 50 percent of holiday shoppers are unaware that package delivery companies are not responsible for stolen packages that are left at your front door without requiring a delivery signature.  Nearly half of Maine respondents said they ship packages and never require a signature. Seventy-eight percent say they receive home deliveries without having to provide a signature “some” or “all of the time.”

    The FWN survey also asked participants if they have experienced a recent stressful life event, which fraud experts say can make it more difficult to spot and resist holiday scams.  More than 70 percent of consumers have experienced at least one life stress event in the past six months.

     Thanks to a new law, all Mainers can place a freeze on their credit report with all three major credit bureaus for free.  Because a credit freeze safeguards a person’s credit report, it is one of the most effective ways to protect consumers from identity theft.

    For information and detailed tips on how to avoid all manner of holiday scams, including those detailed above, visit AARP’s holiday fraud web page.  Consumers may also visit the Fraud Watch Networkto receive timely fraud alerts for their local area.