Beware of computer cons trying to steal your holiday spirit and your cash

CLEVELAND - The holidays happen fast. The traffic. The shopping. The emails.

And those emails, the ones sent by people phishing for your money, can throw a Grinch into your hustle and bustle and holiday spirit.

"They use that to their advantage," Hillary Speers said. She now guards against any suspicious emails around the holiday rush. "People catch you when you're off guard, when you're not thinking about it."

Speers has seen the pressure-packed pitches to give to what she calls "so-called" charities.

"Oh, it's the season of giving, don't you want people to feel comfort, or don't you want people to have the things you have?" she said.

Before you answer, Rick Brinkley with Better Business Bureau has a warning.

"Scam artists live for the holiday season because there are so many emails that'll make sense to you, that otherwise would not," said Brinkley.

Brinkley said those suspicious charity emails are among the top ones to watch out for, and because of them, not only do consumers lose money, but legit charities do too.

"Which means the disease research isn't being done. The poor aren't being fed. Those kinds of things don't occur because scam artists are lining their pockets with people's good intentions," Brinkley said.

Also at the top of the list, electronic greeting cards. Experts say someone can download a virus to crash your computer and steal your information, your credit and your money. Plus, the suspicious ecards may be sent to everyone in your address book and you become the messenger of the virus.

"For me, I tend to delete them without opening them," Brinkley said. "Then send an email out of my own email account and send them an email saying I got your card, thank you very much. But I don't take the risk of opening it."

The last of our three suspicious holiday emails takes advantage of the huge increase in folks who shop for gifts on the Internet and those who ship their gifts to family and friends.

A message like this shows up in your inbox, a so-called delivery notification, which has you open an attachment that asks for personal information or it downloads one of those dreaded viruses.

Brinkley has this suggestion: "If you get a notification, call FedEx, UPS, the United States Postal Service, whomever is supposed to be delivering that package and verify it before you do anything, like clicking on a link inside the email."

Brinkley said most delivery companies will leave a sticky note on your door if they've tried to drop off a package, not send an email.

"In your excitement over the holiday season, don't let your common sense go out the window," he said.

That means deleting any of those unsolicited emails, which legitimate charities usually don't use. Speers agrees with that advice, especially now as she decides what charities to give to.

"I'm going to seek you out, and I'm going to find something that's near and dear to my heart," she said.

Do your research. Here are three websites that can help:

The Better Business Bureau http://bbb.org evaluates local charities.

Give.org focuses on national charities.

Guidestar.org allows you to look at a charity's tax filings so you can find how wisely they spend their money before you give them yours.

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