Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Don’t Let the Grinch Ruin Your Holidays

In the classic Dr. Suess book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the green, mean Mr. Grinch was on a mission to deny the people of Whoville Christmas by stealing all the presents, decorations and food for the Christmas holiday.  How could anyone want to steal Christmas?  As Dr. Suess writes, “the most likely reason of all, may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

Although the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is fiction, there is a lesson in the whimsical rhyme: there are “Grinches” around every corner whose hearts are two sizes too small looking to ruin your holiday.
During the holiday season, we see an increase in identity theft and consumer fraud. With more consumers shopping and looking for good deals, there is greater opportunity for thieves, snake-oil salesmen and criminals to steal, dupe and con.
Here are my top ten ways to protect yourself from being a victim of fraud or identity theft this holiday season:
  1.  If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  We all know this is true, but sometimes we are lured into thinking we can get a great deal, especially in this economy.  Chances are, the only thing we’ll get is taken advantage of.
  2. Never give money to someone you don’t know, especially if they promise a “too good to be true” deal on electronics or other high-end merchandise.  Trust me, the person who approaches you in the parking lot of a mall or electronics store does NOT have a line on discounted TVs or computers.   They are just trying to steal your money.
  3. Check with your bank or credit card company on the policies regarding identity theft and credit card fraud.  Know what you’re on the hook for and what’s covered if your credit card information gets stolen. If it does get lost or stolen, report it immediately.  Keep copies of your credit card and bank account in a secure location for this purpose.
  4. Check your account balance and credit card activity every day.  For those who are not too familiar with online banking, have your bank or credit card company walk you through setting up a secure way to check your accounts online.
  5. Consider using cash or a check.  The benefit of using a check is that payment can be stopped if you determine you’ve been a victim of fraud.
  6. It’s okay to open emails from legitimate retailers offering discounts and promotions.  But, don’t ever link to any site from an email.  Always open a new web browser window and manually type in the web address of the company you want to shop.
  7. If you do shop online, make sure you use a secure site when entering payment information.  Look for “https” (:http: is not sufficient) to start the Internet address and a “lock” on the top right of the address bar.
  8. Before you purchase a gift card or gift certificate, make sure you understand the terms and definitions of the gift cards and gift certificates to ensure that your gift giving experience is a pleasant one.  Gift cards and gift certificates are popular presents because they allow the recipient to pick out exactly what he or she wants from a specific store and they can save time for the gift giver.  Under Rhode Island law, gift cards do not expire.
  9. Before you make any purchase, familiarize yourself with the store's and/or online retailer’s refund policy. Can you return the items for a full refund if you're not satisfied with it? What are the conditions that apply? For example, do the price tags have to be on the product, is there a restocking fee or, in the case of Internet shopping, do you have to pay shipping and handling fees?
  10. If you are a victim of consumer fraud or credit card theft, contact your bank and/or credit card company immediately.  Second, contact your local police or the Office of Attorney General to file a consumer complaint.  The faster you realize there is a problem, the quicker authorities can conduct an investigation and the less damage can be done to your bank account.
While these tips are designed to protect you from being a victim of consumer fraud or identity theft during the holidays, it’s important to remember that the true meaning of Christmas and the entire holiday season isn’t about flat screens, iPads or designer labels.  It’s about celebrating family and friends and being thankful for what we have, not what we don’t.  In the end, the Grinch realizes that Christmas isn’t found in presents, decorations or the roast beast.  It is in the heart and spirit of each person down in Whoville, and in each of us.   

From the entire staff of the Office of the Attorney General, may you and your family have a safe, healthy and happy holiday season.