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Some keys for a safe and frugal Christmas

Don't click on any links sent to you. Instead, type in the retailer's name or the Web site address yourself. It takes a few extra seconds but avoids potential identity theft or credit card theft.

Beware of "too good" deals. If they sound too good to be true, chances are they're fake. And look out for too-low prices on upscale, luxury brands like Cartier or Tiffany. Scamsters know that consumers are price-shopping, so be certain the Web site you're perusing is legitimate. This time of year, phony online auction sites are especially prevalent, says Marcus, who's seen pseudo Craigslist sites and phony eBay Web sites in Chinese, French and German.

Beware of "phishing." It could be a phony FedEx invoice or a heartfelt appeal from a real-sounding charity. Official-looking e-mails, with company or charity logos, can pop up, asking you to verify credit card and other financial information. Even if you think the e-mail is legitimate, contact the company yourself to verify the request.

Careful where you web. Avoid using open Wi-Fi connections while making purchases online.

Update your security software. Don't assume it's being done for you. Click on your computer's security icon and hit "Auto Update" to be sure it's automatically updating with the latest protection against viruses.

Mix up your passwords. Don't use the same passwords for online accounts.

Feeling frugal this holiday season? It's okay, so are most American consumers, according to numerous surveys.

As the shopping season gets into full swing this week, here are some ways to save — and some ways to be safe.

First, the savings. Whether it's online or at the mall, there are lots of ways to trim your holiday spending.

One of the easiest: Start early and work from a list for each person. You'll be less inclined to panic on last-minute spending or overdo the individual gifts.

Here are some other tips:

Think creatively. A family can use a recycled theme in which every gift has to be purchased from a used bookstore, thrift shop, consignment store or other "gently used" boutique. Wrapping also has to be something recycled.

Carry cash. When it's gone, you're done shopping for the day. And using cash means you'll be less likely to splurge or fritter it away on those small, frivolous "what-was-I-thinking" purchases. If you're using a credit card, leave your checkbook and extra credit cards at home, in case your purse or wallet is lost or stolen.

Check your limit. With so many credit card companies lowering their limits in recent months, you may not have as much shopping capacity as you think. Read your monthly statement or call the company to see if your credit limit has changed. If you exceed it, you could be hit with fees or penalties.

If you're shopping online, look for bundled discounts, combining dollars-off and free shipping.

Mike Allen, founder and "chief executive shopper" of, a coupon Web site, recommends looking at the online minimums for discounts. If you're buying $65 worth of sweaters, for instance, it might be worth bumping up your order to $75 to take advantage of free shipping. And try to group multiple orders from a single retailer, so you're only paying shipping and handling fees once.

WATCH OUT FOR WEB SCAMS. Online shoppers should also be on the lookout for cyber-crooks.

Anyone can get hit. "It's happened to me," said Joanne McNabb, head of California's Office of Privacy Protection, who said she got snagged while buying flowers online.

After completing her floral order, a small pop-up window appeared on McNabb's computer: "Get 10 percent off your next order!" She clicked on it, without paying attention to the details. A few months later, she noticed an unfamiliar $3.95 monthly charge on her credit card statement. Sure enough, it was a subscriber service that she'd inadvertently signed up for. McNabb immediately called her credit card company and canceled the "service."

Her advice: "Read the fine print before you accept anything online. And monitor your credit card statement for any unfamiliar charges. Even if it's a small amount you don't understand, question it."

Some keys for a safe and frugal Christmas 12/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 8:43pm]
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