You'd better watch out...T'is the season for scams

As consumers enter the height of the holiday shopping season, it's a certainty that thieves will be lurking, searching for an angle to get their piece of the action. And while shoppers are a prime target, the crooks cast a wide net.

The key to avoiding becoming a victim is to understand what they're looking for. So, here are five tips to help you spot some of the more common scams of the season. If you see any of these, head the other way.

Deals. Everyone thinks they're going to get a deal shopping this time of year. It's what Black Friday and Cyber Monday are all about, after all. But there's a big difference between waiting in a line for a door-buster at Best Buy and trying to find a pair of discounted UGG boots or a cheap Coach purse online. Counterfeit sites thrive this time of year, capitalizing on consumers searching for name brands and such terms as "deal," "sale," or "cheap."

Be very leery of sites that offer name-brand products for less than anyone else. Steer clear of those that use the name of the product and "cheap" or similar words in the site name. Be sure to research any site that you haven't successfully purchased from earlier. And don't click on links in emails boasting of sites offering such deals.

Charity appeals. Charities ramp up their campaigns to coincide with the holidays, and many get the bulk of their revenue in a year-end giving frenzy. That also makes it easier for crooks to slip in with their own appeals. Watch out for emails, phone calls and social media pitches for charities. You'll find that many use sound-alike names and are just schemes to get your money.

The best bet if you're charitably inclined is to decide on a charity you'd like to donate to rather than react to a pitch. This way, you can ensure your money gets where you want it to, when you want it to.

Home repairs. You've been waiting a while fix this or that, or you certainly haven't had the chimney cleaned in a while. Coincidentally, the phone rings or there's a knock at the door from someone pitching fix-it services or chimney cleaning. It's like they can read your mind.

Your mind should be thinking "scam." It's routine to get such pitches this time of year because most people procrastinate, and crooks understand human nature. Want your chimney cleaned? Find a local company with a solid track record -- ideally, one recommended by someone you know.

Free (or cheap) travel. Whether it comes by postcard, email or on the phone, the idea that you've just won a trip to someplace warm and sunny when it's cold and bleak can be tempting. But there's always a catch. You'll either be on the hook for some made-up fees and taxes, you'll have to sit through a several hours long sales pitch or what's being presented is nothing close to reality. In each case, it will neither be free (or cheap). Want a vacation? Plan one.

Helping your stranded friend. Just when you're thinking about how tempting that free trip to the Bahamas looks (but you now know it's a scam), you get an email from a friend on a trip who desperately needs your help. Maybe he got into an accident. Perhaps someone stole all his things. Whatever the back story, the idea is to get you to cough up some cash, usually by making a payment to a reloadable debit card or through a service like Western Union.

Such emails go out by the ton this time of year and require maximum skepticism because they typically involve emails sent from your friend's real account, which has been hijacked. Think about the words being used and whether they really fit the person they're coming from. Resist the pressure to send money right away.

If you really believe it's your friend, call a known phone number -- home, cell or another friend, and see if he's really in trouble in another country. Chances are he'll be home (or nowhere near the location in the email) and answer your call. Then, you can let him know his email has been hijacked.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.