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'Tis the season for scammers

| Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006

Chances are, there will be no van filled with balloons, and no TV personality knocking at your door to present a big check this holiday season. During this season of "goodwill toward men," however, grinches that steal Christmas may come in the form of scam artists out to take, not give, money.

Cpl. Chris Yanoff of the state police, East Franklin station, said Internet scammers abound, not only during the Christmas shopping season, but throughout the year.

"Lottery winning notices are a very common scam," Yanoff said. "They are termed 'Nigerian' scams because that's the country where many of these scams originated. However, fake lottery winning notices may originate from countries in South America, and several European and African countries and are sent by mass e-mail.

"All these e-mails ask the 'winner' to send a 'good-faith' deposit or pay a processing fee or pay taxes on their alleged winnings. The bottom line is if you win a lottery or drawing from a legitimate company, you are never asked to pay anything upfront or in advance. A legitimate company will pay you, you will not pay them. Victims of such scams don't get their money back because federal authorities are stonewalled by the fact that the countries in which the scams originate do not have extradition agreements with the U.S."

Yanoff said while Internet scams have become very common, door-to-door scammers are still in operation.

"There was a recent case where a salesman was representing a legitimate paving company from Lawrence County," he said. "However, this man, a known police character, would take deposits from people for driveway paving and not turn them into the company. In some cases, he would also tell people that in addition to being a salesman for the company, he was also an investment counselor. This man was very slick. He would convince people to invest a few hundred dollars, then return sometime later and tell them their 'investment' had paid off. He would give them a substantial profit, but then convince them to reinvest it to make even more money. If he got several thousand dollars from people, that's the last they would hear of him. He cheated a number of people in the county here, and he cheated the legitimate company he worked for."

Yanoff cautioned residents to be extremely wary of what credit or payment information they give out via the Internet and be wary of door-to-door peddlers or people asking for donations.

Trooper Jamie K. Levier, public information officer for state police Troop C, Punxsutawney, said the safest way to conduct Internet transactions is by using a credit card. He said in the event of unauthorized charges, under federal law, the cardholder's liability is limited to $50 and some credit card companies will pay this amount for the cardholder in the event unauthorized charges are made.

He said that while credit card information can be safeguarded, many Internet safeguards, such as Secure Sockets Layer technology, designed to encrypt credit card information, may not work if a cardholder responds to an e-mail solicitation.

"They key is you have to initiate the transaction," he said. "If you respond to an e-mail solicitation, you don't know who you are dealing with or even where they are located."

State police also cautioned holiday shoppers against another type of grinch -- smash-and-grab artists.

Yanoff said that thefts of packages from parked cars are very common during the holiday season and advised shoppers to keep their vehicle locked. Packages should be kept in the trunk or out of sight.

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