Fake apps, fraud take joy out of holiday shopping

Who wouldn't be excited to find a super low price on a hot toy, like Hatchimal, an interactive creature that hatches out of an egg? Or maybe your shopping trigger is a bargain on cashmere activewear?

What about downloading an app quickly, if you're told you can save 25 percent on your purchase?

Before you jump, though, take extra care this holiday season. Is this deal legitimate? Are you browsing a website with solid online security measures? Or could you even be looking at a fake app?

"Card fraud is a huge business," said Al Pascual, research director and head of fraud and security for Javelin Strategy and Research in Pleasanton, Calif.

"They're going to get the data any way they can get it."

Criminals are going after the databases of online merchants and trying to engineer an account takeover, Pascual said.

The crooks don't need to steal your credit card or debit card number, he said. Instead, they use information found elsewhere, maybe via a breach, to gain access to your online account with a given retailer.

Once they're in, the crooks could get access to the credit card you had stored with the online retailer. They might order something online and pick it up in the store.

Criminals know that many people re-use passwords, so they can hack into accounts using passwords obtained via other breaches.

"It's just a matter of the odds, at least some of them are going to hit," Pascual said. "They didn't have to go into the dark web and buy the card numbers."

What are some ways to steer clear of the fraudsters this holiday season? Here are a few tips:

No. 1: Watch how you celebrate the holidays via Facebook or Twitter.

It sounds odd. But, seriously, hackers can use social media profiles to figure out passwords, according to the American Bankers Association. Do you need to post the dog's name with his or her holiday photo? Or post a family portrait that's taken in front of your house with the address right there for everyone to see?

No. 2: Fake retail apps could trick you during the holidays.

Industry experts are warning of apps that impersonate well-known retailers, such as Payless ShoeSource, Torrid and Dillard's. After media reports, many fake apps have been quickly taken down by Apple.

But experts say it's sort of like the game whack-a-mole. One fake app is taken down, another one crops up, according to experts at Branding Brand, which works with retailers to launch and maintain apps.

Consumers can use a retailer's app to get access to exclusive sales or limited products. Or apps can be helpful in buying online and then picking up the item in the store. But you don't want a fake app.

Chris Mason, president, CEO and cofounder of Branding Brand in Pittsburgh, said it's difficult to know the intention of the con artists launching the fake apps. But some may use apps to install malware or trick you into providing personal information, maybe when you think you're opening up a credit card with that retailer.

Some clues to a fake app: Does the app have any reviews? If there are no reviews, that's a red flag because someone just created that app, Mason said.

Or are any words misspelled in the description of the app?

"They'll misspell words like sneaker, if it's supposed to be the app for the Finish Line," Mason said.

No. 3: Watch your statements during the holidays.

Go online and check your all credit card activity even more frequently during the holidays, said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com.

"Don't wait for your statement at the end of the month," Hardekopf said.

Fraudsters can get credit card information, even if you don't shop online, so keep an eye out for possible problems. Once you report the loss or theft, the Federal Trade Commission notes that the law says you have no additional responsibility for charges you didn’t make. Your liability for each credit card lost or stolen is limited to $50 in the event of fraud but a number of card issuers have zero liability policies.

To avoid possible problems, you want to alert your card holder quickly once you spot trouble.

If you suspect that the credit card was used fraudulently, you may have to sign a statement under oath that you didn’t make the purchases.

No. 4: Take care so the box arrives — and isn't stolen.

Unfortunately, the holidays are filled with stories of someone snatching packages off porches.

Crooks aren't always high-tech. So it's good to know whether your friend or family member will be home or away for the holidays. Is there a way to alert them that a package will be arriving?

Shippers and retailers often allow you to track your package and notify you of delivery. Once notified of a delivery, make sure that you are able to retrieve the package.

No. 5: Hit the yoga mat to calm down before spinning into an online shopping frenzy.

Every great deal that you spot online or via a text or e-mail is not a bargain. Instead, you could be looking at a phishing expedition.

"Stop. Think. Have lunch. Sleep on it," warned Peter Cassidy, general secretary for the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

"Slow down in every way."

Fake e-mails, texts and websites can lure consumers with outlandishly low prices, but then install malware on your computer. Or you might get hooked by a phishing attempt to obtain your ID information, including your credit card.

The Better Business Bureau notes that some websites offer suspiciously low prices on popular goods to entice shoppers into turning over their credit card information. It’s easy for a fake site to mimic a well-trusted retailer’s web site or app, so consumers need to make sure they are shopping with a legitimate site.

Experts note that secure sites have an address that begins with "https." Beware of pop-up ads that lead you to another website or ask for your personal information or account numbers.

"Don't wander around dark alleys. It's dangerous and that's where bad links lurk," Cassidy said. "You just can't keep clicking on stuff until you infect your computer."

Contact Susan Tompor at stompor@freepress.com or 313-222-8876. Follow her on Twitter @Tompor. 


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