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5 popular holiday shopping scams

Ah, the holidays: a time of goodwill toward your fellow man -- for some people. For others, it's an opportunity to grab all they can and run while people's defenses are down.

While you are looking for the perfect gifts, con artists will be looking for the perfect target. This holiday season, don't get taken by these popular scams.

Naming a star
What better gift could you give someone then the symbol of the first Christmas -- a star? Various companies claim they can sell you a star -- for a fee. This year one company is charging $54. These companies will send you a certificate with the name and location of "your star" and promise that your star's name will be in a star registry.

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Here's the problem: Stars are named by the International Astronomical Union -- and they aren't selling. Names for stars (and most are given numbers) are assigned according to the internationally accepted rules of the IAU. Anyone else who claims to be able to name stars has no more legal standing than your neighbor's Rottweiler. When they say your star is going into a "registry," they mean whatever registry they made up -- not the official catalog that is kept by the IAU and used by all astronomers.

According to the IAU's Web site, "such 'names' have no formal or official validity whatever. Like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy."

If you want to give someone a star, save yourself some money: Go to the closest planetarium, pick a star you think is pretty and ask the astronomer for the coordinates. Then go home and make your own certificate on your own computer.

Fake charities
Is that sound holiday carolers at your door? No. It's kids selling magazines to support a local scam artist -- oops, they meant to say charity.

Many charities will come knocking, calling or mailing you pleas for donations because during the holidays people remember that part of being human is helping out those less fortunate. Unfortunately, many of those so-called charities are fakes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, many of the calls you get this year will be from scam artists. The FTC has a checklist of warning signs to help you steer clear of charity scams.

Your best bet is to not make any quick decisions, ask for information in writing and research the charity before cutting any checks.

Spam solicitations
Never buy anything from an unsolicited e-mail. No matter how good a deal you think you are getting, it is not worth it to risk losing your money or giving any of your information to a possible scam artist. By responding to these e-mails, you are begging to receive so much spam as to make your inbox unusable, because by responding to their e-mail, you let the spammers know that you have a working e-mail address. You are also proclaiming yourself easily fooled and a great target for any number of Internet scams -- such as identity theft.

It is unfortunate that spam scams have become so prevalent that they are virtually indistinguishable from legitimate advertisers -- and there are some legitimate advertisers out there. But as this is the currently reality, don't take the risk.

eBay scams
"Let the buyer beware" takes on a severe meaning when applied to online auctions. Accept the fact that you are dealing with a nameless, faceless salesperson that could disappear at any time. Bid wisely and only pay for items using your credit card so you can cancel payment if you don't receive your merchandise -- or if you receive that tea set you were bidding on only to discover that it is dollhouse-sized.

The high-pressure sale
Perhaps the most annoying scam is the legal one: the high-pressure sale. It can happen anywhere -- the mall, the car lot, over the phone and even in the salon. You've been through it before: "No, really, you have to have this mousse so your hair will sit correctly. I'll just add it onto your bill," or "We only have two of these carrot juicers left. After they are gone, I won't have any more," and "This is a special price just for you so take it or leave it because I am just about to close up shop."

Rest assured there are lots of carrot juicers in the world and if one person is willing to give you a "good deal" on it, someone else will too. Go home, research the product on the Internet and figure out what a good price is or you will be doomed to pay too much.

-- Posted: Nov. 30, 2004
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See Also
Tips for stretching your holiday budget
17 sneaky ways to save
How equity for the holidays?
Financial advice glossary
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