Beware of scams this holiday season

Customers shop at Wal-Mart’s Black Friday shopping event in Rogers, Ark.
Customers shop at Wal-Mart’s Black Friday shopping event in Rogers, Ark. File photo

Amid shopping on Black Friday and cyber Monday, gift giving over the holidays and donating to charities, the next few months come rife with opportunities for scammers.

But some simple tips can help lessen exposure to scams and fraud.

Tips to avoid scams

Avery Elofsson, senior assistant district attorney for Sedgwick County, who is responsible for litigation in the Consumer Protection Division, said in general, “always be skeptical when people are trying to get your account numbers or personal identifiers.”

The Sedgwick County Consumer Protection Division will soon display tip sheets at shops, banks and superstores around Wichita with advice on how to avoid scams:

▪ Hang up if someone calls asking for money or personal information. Phone numbers can be manipulated, so it’s best to call the business or government agency directly.

▪ Do not pay in advance for prizes, and don’t pay money to receive money.

▪ Don’t wire money or send gift cards to people you don’t know. Legitimate businesses and government agencies will not require consumers to pay with gift cards or wire money. Elofsson said scammers are increasingly asking for prepaid gift cards, which are harder to trace than checks, money orders or wire transfers.

▪ Slow down. Con artists prey on fear and will press consumers to quickly give out personal information or money. But once the money is gone, it’s nearly impossible to recoup.

▪ If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If you think you might be the victim of a scam, call the Consumer Protection Division at 316-660-3653. The Office of the District Attorney can be reached at 316-660-3600.

How to vet a charity

Charities are a multibillion-dollar industry, and yet, Elofsson said, nearly half of donors don’t check charities before donating.

“As with everything, scammers go where the money is, so if it’s a huge-dollar industry, they’re going to try to go there,” he said.

“They prey on kindness.”

Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission about how to avoid charity scams:

▪ Search online for the charity’s name, and search it with “complaint(s)” or “scam.”

▪ Check whether the charity is registered through the Kansas Secretary of State’s office at www.kssos.org/main.html.

▪ Check reputations with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Navigator.

▪ Ask how much of each donation will go to the actual cause.

▪ Know the difference between tax exempt – which means the organization doesn’t pay taxes – and tax deductible – which means people can deduct their contributions on their federal income tax return.

▪ Do not provide personal or bank account information.

▪ Never send cash donations and never wire money. For security and tax purposes, it’s best to pay with checks or credit cards.

▪ Be wary of charities that pop up suddenly after current events or natural disasters.

For a complete list of tips about charity scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0074-giving-charity.

A year-round scam

The most common scams in Sedgwick County, and in the country, involve a scammer claiming an individual owes money to the IRS.

The scammers also often threaten consumers as a tactic for faster payment.

The IRS neither threatens consumers nor contacts them by phone.

Nonetheless, Elofsson said, the scammers are “becoming ever more convincing.”

He said nationwide, people reported being contacted by IRS scams more than 1.7 million times last year. Those who did report the scams accounted for $48 million in losses last year.

The key advice: Don’t give out personal or bank information, or send money to anyone without independently verifying the agency.

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn