How to spot, avoid holiday scams

'Tis the season to watch your wallet.

It's about that time of year when people start holiday shopping, but buyer beware: Whether you're at the mall or buying online, scam artists are finding various ways to try to swindle you out of your hard-earned cash.

So what should you watch out for?

Personal finance expert and CBS News contributor Carmen Wong Ulrich shared lots of great information and advice on "The Early Show on Saturday Morning":

ONLINE

Phishing:

We do so much shopping online that we sometimes don't realize just how many people have our email address. Phishing is when someone poses as a trusted source, such as your bank or a retailer you've shopped at, and asks for personal information, or even just for you to click on a link within an email. It's happened to me at least half a dozen times!

This time of year, be especially aware of getting a request to fill out a feedback questionnaire from a retailer you've never done business with - that's a dead giveaway that someone's looking for you to take their bait!

What to do:

- Do NOT open attachments or click on any links.

- If it looks like some type of alert, close the email and go directly to your banking/credit card or retailer site and look for information there.

- Realize that your bank or credit card issuer or retailer would NEVER ask for personal information in an email.

- Report the attempt to your card issuer or bank through their customer service representatives.

Smishing:

Same idea as phishing, but it's through text messages - "SMS" - hence, "smishing."

Again, your bank or credit card company will not send you text messages looking for information, asking you to respond.

- Delete the message and report the incident to your bank/card issuer.

- NEVER respond.

Pop-Ups and False Ads:

Especially with all the shopping we do this time of year, we are bombarded with ads, but be wary. Even the ads on websites you frequent may not be real.

- Don't respond to requests to leave feedback or sign up to win prizes, especially when it comes in the form of a pop-up ad.

- Be on the lookout for ads within a site that look different than what you're used to seeing, or different than the style of the rest of the site. They may be false ads, looking to infect your computer with a virus that can strip your personal financial information from your computer.

- Disable pop-ups from appearing on your computer, and make sure your computer is up-to-date with anti-virus software and is backed up regularly.

IN-STORE

Gift-card swiping:

The Better Business Bureau got more than 440 complaints last year regarding empty gift-cards, compared to only 33 complaints the year before.

Crooks do it in two ways:

- In the store, thieves have scanners that can see through the scratch-off barrier and then use the number beneath it, in effect stripping the card of its value.

- Beware of buying gift cards on auction sites, since they may be empty of value.

What to do?

- Only buy gift cards that are kept behind the counter/register.

- Buy gift cards from well-known gift-card buying/swapping sites that have policies that protect you should you buy an empty card.

Debit Card Skimming:

It can be a lot easier to lose your wallet during a bustling shopping visit, or get it swiped. And skimmers can ramp up attempts to get card information during such a high-volume time.

What to do?

- Beware of debit card skimmers. Whether it's at the gas pump, ATMs or even busy retailers, keep an eye on who's watching you put in your PIN. Cover your hand at the ATM and on the check-out line so cameras can't possibly record your PIN. Skimming means thieves may also have a dummy card reader in the machine that skims your magnetic strip - combine that with your debit PIN and, presto, instant cash for them ... yours!

- Protect PIN at ATM.

- Use a credit card when and if you can stay on budget to make purchases both in-store and online. The losses you incur won't be your cash.

- Keep photocopies (front and back) of all the cards in your wallet in a secure place at home. This way, should your cards go missing you have all the information you need.

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