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Holidays’ dark side

Shop carefully: While shoppers look for holiday bargains, they should be looking over their shoulders and watching their steps so they can avoid the criminals who are watching them. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Crooks love the holidays. Their immeasurable bad will is the yin for the yang of everybody else’s yuletide generosity and good cheer.

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After all, why wouldn’t criminals enjoy Christmas? There are just so many cars to break into, houses to burgle and purses to snatch. There are trinkets to shoplift, IDs to swipe and con marks to catch.

Over the years, cops, prosecutors and cyber security experts have been warning holiday shoppers that they better watch out — on the street, in the stores, on the phone or in the Great Blue Nowhere of the Internet.

“There’s always somebody looking to separate you from your money,” District Attorney Seth Williams stated Nov. 26. “The best course of action is prevention. Many thieves choose their victims because the thieves see an opportunity. If you take away the opportunity, chances are you won’t become a victim.” Here’s a summary of holiday tips:

— When you shop, park in visible spots under streetlights, and don’t forget to lock your car, take your keys and not leave anything visible in your car. One little package or even a small amount of money is enough incentive, police have said, for somebody to use their “key” to get into your car. What’s their “key?” A rock, a bat, brick, anything hard enough to smash auto glass. There are thieves who stake out parking lots. They will notice if you make repeated trips from stores to your car. It’s not the kind of attention you want.

— Don’t think your car is immune to break-ins when it’s parked in front of your house or in your driveway. It isn’t. If you leave purchases in your car and that car is visible from the street or sidewalk, you might as well put a sign on your window that reads, “Come and get it!”

— Never leave a car that’s unlocked and running “just for a minute.”

— Use ATMs that are inside, not outside and exposed. Put your money away before you go out. And be careful which ATMs you use. Stick to ones you’ve used already and avoid ones that might be dummies set up to get your account number.

— Use a prepaid card or a credit card when you shop, the DA advised. Prepaid cards have some of the same anti-fraud and security systems that credit cards do, but have the added benefit of keeping the shopper within a budget.

— When you shop, keep your keys and money separate. If somebody swipes your wallet or purse, at least you’ll be able to drive home and get in your house.

— Many people have remotes they can use to lock or unlock their cars. Many of those remotes have horn buttons that are handy ways to find cars in a crowded lot. It also can be used to scare off thieves and burglars. Keep it in your hand while you’re going to your car for holiday shopping. Hit the horn button if anyone suspicious comes near you. You might want to consider, police have advised, to keep that remote in your bedroom at night and hit the horn button if you hear an intruder in your house. You probably won’t be popular with your neighbors for doing that, but it just might scare off an intruder.

— You don’t have to walk around looking paranoid, but you shouldn’t be careless. Putting your phone or a credit card down on a store counter is careless. Leaving a handbag in a shopping cart while you reach for something from a shelf is really careless. Turn away for a second or two, and see how fast stuff disappears. Your credit card should not leave your hands if it doesn’t have to.

— Don’t buy electronics from strangers in parking lots. “It’s always a scam,” Williams said. You might get offered a $1,000 item for $100 or $200, but when you get the box home, it’s filled with trash or junk.

— Take only what you need when you’re shopping. Extra credit cards, your library card, your Social Security card and your dry cleaner receipts don’t have to go with you, do they? If you’re paying cash, take only the cash you need.

— Thieves will try to distract you. Somebody who tries to engage you in conversation, or bump into you, might be trying to lift your wallet or credit cards. Step back.

— Don’t walk around or wait for a bus with your smartphone out. Philadelphia has been the hottest spot in the nation for phone thefts. Police officers have been urging people not to make a public display of these expensive items. A thief might get some dollars by lifting your wallet or robbing you, but the guy who takes your phone gets something worth, perhaps, hundreds of dollars that is easily concealed and fairly easily fenced.

— Burglary is a big problem everywhere. Lock your doors and your windows. Don’t step down the street for some eggnog with a neighbor and leave your doors unlocked and think everything is OK because you’re just a few doors away. Even a first-time burglar can be in and out of your house, hauling away your holiday in a matter of minutes. If you stack your gifts near a window that any passer-by can look in, you might as well put that sign mentioned above in the window.

— And you might as well put it online, too, if you post pictures and comments from your holiday vacation while you’re still on vacation. Burglars really appreciate knowing when you’re away, how far you’re away and for how long.

— When Gov. Tom Corbett was attorney general, he advised consumers to shred all unwanted credit card and other financial junk mail so identity thieves don’t get hold of any of your personal information.

— Don’t give out personal information over the Internet or over the phone. Identity thieves might pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers or government agencies to try to get you to give up personal information. Once an identity thief gets your Social Security number or credit card number, there’s practically no end to the misery you can be caused.

— Review your bank and credit card statements immediately to check for charges you know aren’t yours, and notify your bank or credit card company immediately if you find any.

— Check your credit history regularly. Every consumer can obtain their free annual credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.

— Watch out for look-alike websites used by con artists who set them up to steal credit card information.

This year, consumers set a new record for online purchases on Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving. More and more people are surfing the Web to find their gifts. That, of course, means that more and more criminals are surfing that same Web for opportunities to enrich themselves at your expense.

Raking in the cash is the goal of any Internet con, so be wary of swell offers that just appear in your email inbox. Appeals from charities over the phone or through your email account might be from nogoodniks who want to get rich quick.

Free gift cards that seem to be from well-known retailers are a dodge that’s been popular for a few years now. Usually, they do nothing but lure you to a phony site in which you’re asked to give up information that will be useful to identity thieves.

Steep discounts on electronics should be red flags to consumers. Nobody is going to sell a digital camera for $5 or an iPod for $10. “There are dozens of fake online electronics stores,” Williams said, “that don’t even have an inventory, and they won’t ship anything you order. They’re only out to get your credit card number.”

Sometimes, crooks get into somebody’s email account and start sending emails to everyone on the person’s contact list.

It’s usually a version of the old phone scam of “I’m stuck in jail out of state and need bail money” or “My wallet was stolen out of state and I need money to get home.” It’s nonsense that makes dollars for people you don’t know and wouldn’t want to know.

If you’re approached by someone who claims to represent a charity, go directly to the charity if you’re moved to make a donation.

Williams advised against downloading phone apps from anything but app stores. Be wary of responding to emails. Avoid too-good-to-be true offers on social media from people you don’t know.

He also advised consumers to use different passwords with different online retailers.

“Online retailers are routinely hacked and their databases are compromised. This means that, if you used the same password as your email or bank account, your account security goes out the window,” Williams said.

Best practice is probably to deal only with online businesses with whom you already have established relationships. Ditto for charities. “You might be tempted by amazing deals on sites you never heard of, but it’s safer to stay away,” Williams said.

If you don’t know ’em already, maybe you should wait until the holidays, with all their varied stresses, are in your book of golden memories before getting acquainted.

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