Pleasanton Weekly

- February 7, 2014

Don't fall for Valentine's Day scams

Internet thieves coolly set traps for unsuspecting shoppers

by Jason Alderman

On Valentine's Day, people's emotions run all over the map. Some are head-over-heels and want to shower their loved one with gifts, while others are despondent because currently they have no one special in their life.

Whatever your love status, one thing everyone needs to guard against at this time of year is scams.

Valentine's Day brings out the best, and worst, in human behavior. Our impulse is to be generous and search for the ideal gift. Internet thieves know this and coolly set traps for unsuspecting shoppers. And, not surprisingly, dating websites experience greater activity, along with a corresponding increase in relationship scammers.

Here are some of the more common Valentine's Day scams to avoid:

1. Electronic greeting cards are popular year-round, especially near holidays. Scammers count on you not paying attention when you receive an email with an innocuous subject line like, "Someone you know just sent you an e-card."

Unless you're certain someone sent you an e-card, never click on links or follow instructions to download software to open the message. Chances are you'll load a virus or malware onto your computer, dooming you to receive endless spam or even endangering your personal and financial information.

2. Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year for florists. Since many people now order flowers online, these purchases are a common target for fraud. A few tips when choosing a florist:

Make sure the physical location, contact information and fees for the florist who's actually fulfilling your order are fully disclosed.

Pay by credit card so if there's a problem you can dispute it with your card issuer.

If you receive an email saying there's a problem with your order, call the florist to make sure it's legitimate; don't click on any links. They could be malware.

3. Beware of emails and social media ads touting great deals on other Valentine-themed gifts such as chocolates, jewelry or lingerie. Unless you've previously done business with a company that legitimately has your email address, be skeptical. Watch out for minor typos in the Web address (e.g. www.macys.comm instead of www.macys.com).

4. It's no coincidence that dating websites are busier during the winter holidays and leading up to Valentine's Day. Lonely people's defenses are lowered, making them vulnerable to online romance scams. Before they know it, victims are conned into sharing personal or financial information, or lending money -- money they'll never see again.

I'm not saying don't pursue love online at legitimate dating sites. Just watch out for these warning signs:

They want to move your conversations off the dating site immediately and use personal email or instant messaging, to avoid policing by the site's webmaster.

Their online profile sounds too good to be true. That's because they've probably shaped it to reflect your stated preferences. Or, conversely, their profile may be suspiciously sketchy on details or their photos don't seem genuine.

They profess love very quickly, even before you've spoken or met.

They claim to be a U.S. citizen working overseas -- often in the military.

They make plans to visit but are suddenly prevented by a traumatic family or business event -- one which your money can overcome.

Bottom line: Don't let your emotions get the better of your common sense when it comes to matters of the heart.

For more tips on spotting and reporting online scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission website, www.ftc.gov.

Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter, @PracticalMoney.

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