The Better Business Bureau earlier this month warned of a “Letters from Santa” holiday scam that involved shysters offering parents a hand-written note from Santa to their child extolling the youngsters’ good behavior and guaranteeing a spot on Kris Kringle’s “nice” list.
The letter was priced at $19.99, but it’s real cost lingered several decimal points to the right.
Similar holiday scams aren’t turning up in the Tri-Cities, but they’re tried-and-true year-round relatives continue to surface.
“The scams have really been about the same,” said Mike Blatman, a crime prevention specialist with the Kennewick Police Department. “I haven’t seen anything that’s specific to the holidays.”
The Better Business Bureau’s eastern Washington office agreed, saying grifters are instead relying on past successes.
“They’re definitely not new, but they’re working,” said Chelsea Maguire, director of communication with the Better Business Bureau’s Spokane office.
Maguire pointed to two lingering scams — the IRS scam and the Microsoft scam — that have remained present throughout the region.
One of the most common IRS scams involves threats that a person owes an outstanding debt to the federal government and must settle it immediately to avoid grave legal trouble. Payments are made through wire transfers or prepaid debit cards. In another scam, victims are told they have a refund waiting for them and must provide banking information to obtain it. Descriptions of other scams can be found on the IRS website.
The Microsoft scam revolves around a nonexistent computer virus and a person asking to take remote control of someone’s computer or encouraging the individual to download malicious software to fight the phantom virus.
“Those are the typical ones we get calls about,” Maguire said.
Microsoft states on its website that it does not make unsolicited calls to customers requesting money for security or software fixes. The IRS says it does not call to demand immediate payment and would not call about taxes owed unless a bill was mailed first. The IRS also does not ask for credit or debit card information over the phone and does not threaten to involve local law enforcement.
Blatman doesn’t expect an uptick in telephone or Internet scams this holiday season, but not because thieves aren’t trying.
“Nowadays, they’re here seven days a week and 365 days a year,” he said.
Financial predators are so commonplace, Blatman said, that avoiding at least some form of identity theft is now practically impossible. Instead of focusing on scammers, Blatman suggested consumers keep their eyes focused on information like bank statements, credit and debit card uses and points of purchase.
“The only thing you can do is keep track of your credit cards and debit cards,” Blatman said.
Maguire mentioned another recent holiday scam in western Washington where gift baskets were sold for an absurdly low fee. The enticing offer was a Trojan horse — purchasing the cheap gift basket gave thieves access to a customer’s credit card information.
“I think there’s just a higher opportunity for scams happening around the holidays,” Maguire said.
The Better Business Bureau recommends people ignore phone calls where immediate action is demanded and watch for emails containing poor grammar or glaring spelling errors. Hovering over emailed Web links can also expose a scam — crooks will sometimes rewrite a Web link to make it look more legitimate, and hovering over it will show the actual destination at the bottom of the browser, according to the BBB. They also recommend researching businesses and nonprofits before donating and making sure Internet transactions unfold on secure sites by checking that the site is an “https” and that there’s an icon of a lock at the end of the browser address bar.
“All you need to do is stop and think about it,” Maguire said of using common sense when confronted with potential scams. She added: “It’s always better to be cautious than to make a quick decision and have to pay for it.”