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Phishing For Compliments: Smart Gift-Giving & Avoiding Scams On Mother’s Day

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In this May 6, 2010 file photo, Beth Durkin makes Mothers Day flower arrangements at a Little Rock, Ark., florist shop. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, file)

Mother’s Day is one of the biggest shopping holidays in the United States. Chances are that if you haven’t bought something by now, you’re scrambling – likely on the internet – to make sure that you don’t forget mom. Unfortunately, that could put you (and your mom) at risk for identity theft. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Be wary of e-cards or internet greeting cards. I love a paper greeting card, but as prices go up, the popularity of paper cards has gone down. As an alternative, you can send an e-card for free or for low cost, and it arrives in seconds. Sounds great, right?

Here’s the problem: fake e-cards. Hackers and scammers may send out links of their own, hoping that you’ll click. But instead of a cute dancing bear or heartfelt Mother’s Day wishes, you could end up with malware or spyware when you click. Malware, which is short for malicious software, typically does one of two things: infects your computer, slowing down or stopping normal functions, or steals personally identifying information by sending it back to a third party. Spyware allows can include a keystroke logger that sends login and other sensitive account information from any electronic device, including your mobile phone, to a third party.

Adam K. Levin, a nationally recognized expert on cybersecurity, privacy, identity theft, fraud, and personal finance, says that consumers should “Never trust, always verify.” Before you send an e-card, let the recipient know that it’s coming (I know, it blows the surprise, but it can help keep the recipient safe). Levin, a former Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, suggests that if you’re on the receiving end of an e-card and you weren’t expecting it, ask the person who sent you the e-card before you click. Don’t click before confirming that it’s a legitimate link.

2. Be cautious of the extras. When you send or receive an e-card or other messaging service on the web, you may be asked to sign up for more services. Sometimes, e-card providers might offer incentives if you become an email list subscriber or a member of their group. Be cautious when you are on such sites – especially if you followed a series of links to get to the site. The links could be fake, or the company could be phishing to gain access to your personal information or information from your friend lists. Don’t click through without verifying that it’s a legitimate site (it’s always best to start at a home page) and be cautious about allowing any companies, even a legitimate company, access to your contact lists, friend lists, and social media. If you’re not making a purchase, don’t offer up financial information like credit card or banking information.

3. Don’t give out your cell phone number like candy. When you sign up for free services, like e-cards or newsletters, it’s not unusual for companies to ask you for your name and your cell phone number. Don’t be so quick to hand over the latter. Levin says that cell phone numbers are the equivalent of today’s Social Security Numbers: everyone asks for it and it’s how you are identified. Your cell phone number is a valuable commodity because, as Levin points out, so much information is stored on mobile these days. When you give out your number to third parties, you may be vulnerable to “smishing” which is the new “phishing” – only done via text messaging. You should always be in control of any exchange over mobile: if you are responding or confirming your cell number from an exchange you didn’t initiate, you’re likely giving up too much information.

(For more on how a scammer builds a profile based on cell or other information, click here.)

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