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With Christmas just around the corner, the FBI’s Pittsburgh office is warning of scams targeting shoppers.

The most common scam involves the victim buying prepaid debit cards or gift cards and giving the card number to the scammer, believing they will receive something in return.

“These scams seem to be the most instant form of payment, because once the victim reads off or takes a picture of the numbers associated with the gift card, the fraudster uses it or sells it immediately,” said Catherine Policicchio, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Pittsburgh office.

Nationally, the FBI has fielded 30,000 complaints about this type of scam this year. The Pittsburgh office has recorded nearly 500 victims who lost about $1 million.

The Pittsburgh office covers West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, from Erie to the Laurel Highlands.

The FBI categorizes these incidents as “nondelivery” or “nonpayment” crimes.

According to the FBI’s website, a victim may give the number for a card and never receive the items they believe they are buying. In other instances they ship an item but are never paid.

According to North Strabane Township Police Chief Brian Hughes, these scams happen year-round, and take many forms.

“There are so many anymore it becomes difficult to even keep track of them,” Hughes said.

Hughes said anytime you are asked to pay for something with a gift card, it should be “a major red flag.”

“I don’t see any legitimate company that deals with gift cards for payment,” Hughes said.

As technology has evolved, so have the scammers, according to Hughes. He says his department has received reports of fake websites made to look like they belong to well-known companies, so victims believe they are buying a product or service directly from the company.

“You give all your credit card information and now you’re a victim,” Hughes said. “As technology progresses, the bad thing is, the more sophisticated those scams get, too.”

Hughes also says that he has noticed residents becoming more educated about scams and less people have been falling victim to them. If someone does, however, it is unlikely local police will be able to punish whoever is responsible.

“You’re talking about trying to find someone who is in an internet cafe in Africa or South America. It’s difficult to find these people to prosecute them. That’s usually where the FBI steps in,” Hughes said.

The FBI says they receive a large volume of complaints in the early months of the year, and that it suggests a correlation with the holiday season.

To protect yourself, the FBI suggests you always get a tracking number for any online orders, and to consider canceling the purchase if the sellers ask that payment be wired via a money transfer company or a prepaid card.

Some sellers may also post auctions as if they reside in the United States, but will often respond to questions by claiming to be out of the country. The FBI suggests verifying the legitimacy of sellers and buyers by checking feedback left by other users.

“While scams take many forms, if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Always check your bank accounts, use secure passwords and don’t click on or respond to unsolicited emails. While November and December are busy shopping months, people may not realize that they have been scammed until later down the road in January or February,” Policicchio said.

If you are the victim of an internet crime, the FBI asks that you report the incident at ic3.gov.

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