As more Washington-area residents go online to prepare for the holiday season -- for everything from buying gifts to making donations to charities -- it's becoming more common to get scammed while doing so.

Consumer advocates say fraud and identity theft reports rise around the holidays, as gift-buyers pinching pennies and scouring for that hard-to-find item on a loved one's wish list make ripe targets for scammers.

Over the past five years, reports of online fraud jumped 31 percent in the District, 73 percent in Maryland and 49 percent in Virginia, according to data from the Internet Crime Complaint Center, an arm of the FBI that tracks cybercrime.

The increasing accessibility of computers has fueled the rise in online fraud reports, said John Everett, spokesman for the National White Collar Crime Center.

By the numbers
Online fraud complaints
Source: FBI
Avoid being a victim
» Check out feedback and reviews for online sellers.
» Don't respond to emails from merchants that request personal information.
» Don't respond to text messages or automated voice messages from phone numbers you don't recognize.
» Treat your cellphone like your computer: Don't download anything if you don't trust the source.
» If a merchant looks suspicious, look up the vendor with the Better Business Bureau or your local consumer protection agency.
» Don't believe promises of fast or easy money.
» Pay with a credit card because you are only liable for $50 in unauthorized charges.
Sources: FBI, National Consumers League

It's also fueled a boom in online shopping -- consumers spent $1 billion in online purchases on Cyber Monday last year, the heaviest Internet spending day in history, according to the digital research firm comScore.

And the newest trend, for both online shoppers and scammers, is mobile devices.

More than half of online retailers have invested in mobile-optimized websites, and nearly 20 percent have developed tablet applications, a National Retail Federation Survey found last month.

But such devices create the potential for malware, like the viruses that can plague computer users, said John Breyault, director of the National Consumers League's fraud center.

Reports of "smishing" scams -- text messages that ask for personal information -- have been rising, said Nikki Junker, social media coordinator for the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Many such scams are fake charities asking for funds, she said.

People are more likely to let their guard down during the holiday season, when money is tight and they want to take advantage of good deals, experts say. That leaves them more vulnerable to scams like bogus shopping websites or fake online ads, auctions or charities.

"People want the best deal," Everett said. "When they see the best deal, it's a knee-jerk reaction to jump on it."

Examiner Archives
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