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The holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but in order to keep the mood merry, people need to steer clear of suspicious situations and naughty criminals.

Officer Jason Willingham, from the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Department, says criminals tend to strike more during the holiday season because they know there are many people out holiday shopping.

Becky Maier, public relations director at the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Western Pennsylvania, says people should be alert to suspicious situations because scam artists are looking to take advantage of them this holiday season.

Maier says some of the most popular holiday scams to be on the lookout for this year include:

  • Scam shopping sites online: “We’re all looking for a great deal online, but some sites offer electronics or luxury goods at prices that are too good to be true,” Maier says. “Every holiday season the BBB hears from holiday shoppers who paid for a supposedly great deal online, but received nothing in return.” Maier advises people to check the business out with the BBB before they make any online purchases at smaller stores they aren’t familiar with.
  • Finding the season’s hottest toys and gadgets online: “Every year, holiday shoppers fight over the ‘must have’ toy or gadget of the season,” Maier says. “When the item is sold out in stores, you can often find it online through sites like Craigslist or eBay – for a much steeper price. The problem is that some sellers will take your money and run.” Maier advises shoppers to never wire money to a seller as payment for an item purchased online.
  • Identity theft at the mall: “While you’re struggling at the mall with bags of presents, identity thieves see an opportunity to steal your wallet and debit or credit card numbers,” Maier says.

    Cover the keypad when entering your pin number while purchasing items or getting money from the ATM,” Maier adds.

    Maier believes it is very important for people doing their holiday shopping to stay alert and not to let distractions cause them to lose track of their valuables.

  • Bogus charitable pleas: “The holidays are a time of giving, which creates a great opportunity for scammers to solicit donations to line their own pockets,” Maier says.

    Maier recommends donors research a charity with the BBB Wise Giving Alliance before deciding to donate, to see if the charity meets the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

  • Phishing emails: “Phishing e-mails are a common way for hackers to get at your personal information or break into your computer,” Maier says.

    Common phishing emails around the holidays include e-cards and messages pretending to be from companies like UPS or FedEx with links to package tracking information.” Maier says email addresses that don’t match up, typos and grammatical mistakes are common red flags of a malicious phishing email.

Consumers who feel like they may have been the victims of a holiday scam should report it to their local authorities immediately and file a complaint with the BBB, Maier says.

In addition to being on the lookout for holiday scams, Officer Willingham advises people to take the time to think about their personal safety during the season.

Willingham says there is an increase in the number of purse snatchings and vehicle burglaries reported at shopping malls during this time of year.

The increase in vehicle burglaries is often due to people returning to their cars to drop purchases off and then going back into the mall, Willingham says.

“These are crimes of opportunity,” Willingham says.  “There are more victims out there. The more cars there are, the easier it is for those guys to blend in.”

Criminals don’t look as suspicious when walking around the parking lot looking for a car to break into, because they blend in easier, Willingham says. 

Willingham says criminals look for people to rob that aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them. 

“When you leave the mall, before you walk outside, put your keys in your hand, think about where you parked, and put the cell phone down,” Willingham says. “These guys look for victims. If someone is walking swiftly with a purpose and they know what’s going on around them, they’re not going to attack that individual.”

Roger Humber, director of the Criminal Justice department at South University — Montgomery, agrees that it is imperative for people to be alert to the activities going on around them.

“One of the easiest things a person can do is just be cognizant of their surroundings,” Humber says. “You are most vulnerable when you are alone or distracted.” 

Willingham advises shoppers to call security if they see suspicious people hanging around shopping centers.

“People running the malls want people there,” Willingham says. “If you can prevent yourself or someone else from being a victim that’s a good thing.”

Willingham says there is also an increase in home robberies during the holiday season. 

People often put Christmas trees and gifts in the front windows of their homes, making it easy for burglars to see. As a result, robberies often occur during the day, when people are at work, Willingham says.

Humber recommends making sure your house always looks occupied, in order to keep robbers away.

“A good practice is making your home appear as though someone is there,” says Humber. “Most burglars are looking for the empty home, so leaving lights on, keeping the mail/newspapers picked up are good ideas.”

Humber says that crimes such as theft rise as a result of people’s increased financial needs during the holidays, crimes such as assault and domestic violence tend to increase because of the added stresses of the season and offenses involving drugs and alcohol tend to rise, because of an increase in celebrations during the season.

Even though people need to exercise caution during this time of year, they shouldn’t let it keep them from enjoying the season.

“We should always be prudent in our behavior and activities, but we need to enjoy this time, which traditionally is a time of joy and celebration,” Humber says.