On Valentine's Day, people's emotions run all over the map -- some are head-over-heels and want to shower their loved one with gifts, while others are despondent because currently they have no one special in their life.
Whatever your love status, one thing everyone needs to guard against at this time of year is scams.
Valentine's Day brings out the best -- and worst -- in human behavior. Our impulse is to be generous and search for the ideal gift. Internet thieves know this and coolly set traps for unsuspecting shoppers. And, not surprisingly, dating websites experience an uptick in activity, along with a corresponding rise in the number of relationship scammers eager to take advantage of lonely people.
Here are some of the more common Valentine's Day scams to avoid:
Bogus e-cards. Electronic greeting cards are popular year-round, but especially near major holidays. Although there are many reputable e-card services like American Greetings, Hallmark and Paperless Post, scammers count on you not paying attention when you receive an email with an innocuous subject line like, "Someone you know just sent you an e-card."
Unless you're certain someone sent you an e-card, never click on links or follow instructions to download software to open the message. Chances are you'll load a virus or malware onto your computer, dooming you to receive endless spam or even endangering your personal and financial information.
If the card is legitimate, there should be a confirmation code you can use to open it at the company's website. (Warning: Use your browser to find the website yourself -- don't just click on the email's link.) When in doubt, call the person to make sure the card is legitimate.Fake flowers. Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year for florists. Since many people now order flowers online, especially for out-of-town loved ones, these purchases are a common target for fraud. Unscrupulous telemarketers will sometimes pose as a local florist and then charge hidden or inflated fees. Adding insult to injury, some even bungle -- or don't deliver -- the order. A few tips:
- Make sure the physical location, contact information and fees for the florist who's actually fulfilling your order are fully disclosed -- third parties are often used around holidays.
- Pay by credit card so if there's a problem you can dispute it with your card issuer.
- Ask for referrals from friends and check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau.
- If you receive an email saying there's a problem with your order, call the florist directly to make sure it's legitimate; don't click on any links -- they could be malware.
Sham sales. Beware of emails and social media ads touting great deals on other Valentine's-themed gifts like chocolates, jewelry or lingerie. Unless you've previously done business with a company that legitimately has your email address, be skeptical. Watch out for minor typos in the web address -- www.macys.comm instead of www.macys.com, for example. Also, hover your cursor over the link, without clicking, to see the full address -- it could be leading you to a sham site.
Phony gift cards. It's not very romantic, but some people give their loved ones gift cards rather than risk buying the wrong present. Scammers know this and try to phish for unsuspecting shoppers' credit card information via ads on social media sites or emails touting bogus discounted card offers. Only buy cards from secure websites of retailers you trust (look for an "s" in the "https://" web address and a lock symbol in the lower-right corner of the screen).
Rotten romance. It's no coincidence that dating websites are busier during the winter holidays and leading up to Valentine's Day. Lonely people's defenses are lowered, making them vulnerable to online romance scams. Before they know it, victims are conned into sharing personal or financial information, or lending money -- money they'll never see again.
Here's a common scam: You meet someone on an online dating service or social media site who appears to be your perfect match. After slowly building your trust and grooming you for a romantic or friendly relationship, a personal crisis will arise and they'll need you to wire money.
Don't. Once money has been wired, it's practically impossible to recover -- it's like mailing cash. If you're foolish enough to do so, you'll probably never hear from Mr. or Ms. Right again.I'm not saying don't pursue love online. There are plenty of legitimate dating services, and most of us know couples who have met and married via one. Just watch out for these warning signs:
- They want to move your conversations off the dating site immediately and use personal email or instant messaging -- the better to avoid policing by the site's Webmaster.
- Their online profile sounds too good to be true. That's because they've probably shaped it to reflect your stated preferences. Or, conversely, their profile may be suspiciously sketchy on details or their photos don't seem genuine.
- They profess love very quickly, even before you've spoken or met. (Ding, ding, ding!)
- They claim to be a U.S. citizen working overseas -- often in the military, to tug on your patriotic heartstrings.
- They make plans to visit but are suddenly prevented by a traumatic family or business event -- one which your money can overcome.
Bottom line: Don't let your emotions get the better of your common sense when it comes to matters of the heart. For more tips on spotting and reporting online scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website. Believe me, they've seen and heard it all.
This blog post is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.
To participate in a free, online Financial Literacy and Education Summit on April 2, 2014, go to Practical Money Skills for Life.