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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Beware the Snake Oil

Plenty of unscrupulous opportunists are eager to ruin your holiday season

The Columbian
Published: December 13, 2010, 12:00am

This being the season of joy and glad tidings, it would seem timely to renew warnings about scams designed to separate you from your money.

You know, the old, “If it sounds too good to be true …” ethos. And as a recent article by reporter John Branton of The Columbian warned, scammers apparently are not overcome by a dose of holiday cheer and good conscience.

For example, there’s the old “work-at-home company financial assistant,” which allegedly allows you to have flexible hours and still earn enough money to fill those Christmas stockings.

In this one, the “company” you work for has customers pay you by check. “After this, you send the same payment to our suppliers or vendors, subtracting your commission of 8 percent from the same amount,” an e-mail from the “company” explains.

Sounds easy? Sounds sleazy, said Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, who explains that people “should never give out their personal checking account information to anyone or utilize their personal accounts on behalf of a business they are unfamiliar with.”

And while it is tempting to scoff or chuckle at anybody who might be sucked in by such transparent promises, the real victims are the legitimate online businesses that are tainted by a broad brush. Some work-at-home businesses are trustworthy, but be sure to check out whom you are dealing with beforehand.

Not that the work-at-home ploy is the only scam making the rounds these days. There’s also one in which you are informed that state or federal jobs are available in the area, and all you have to do is call a phone number to hear job listings and request an application. When the call is for a number in the Caribbean, you later discover you were charged something like $5 a minute.

“There are many legitimate phone numbers and employers in the Caribbean,” according to http://www.scambusters.org, “but there’s no legitimate reason that you would be asked to call the Caribbean to find out about a U.S. government job.”

Ah, good point. And yet it’s one that is worth a reminder. Because the best defense against potential scammers isn’t fear of the world or hiding your money in a mattress. It’s simple education and a little common sense.

For the vast majority of people, this is self-evident. Americans have been armed with enough warnings about identity theft in recent years to choke an elephant. But the reason that such scams exist is that they work well enough to make it worth the scammers’ time.

Therefore, here are a few simple tips to avoid being a victim:

• Know the people you’re dealing with.

• Don’t believe promises of easy money.

• Be cautious about unsolicited e-mails.

• Guard all of your personal information, such as bank account numbers and Social Security numbers.

And, in the end, beware of promises from African princes or Iraqi security guards or foreign lottery officials who have $3.2 million just waiting to be routed into your bank account in exchange for a small startup fee.

As the fact-chasing website http://www.snopes.com warns: “Once your bank account has been sucked dry or you start making threats, you’ll never hear from these Nigerians again. As for the money you’ve thrown at this, it’s gone forever.”

So, yes, there is no end to the creativity of Internet scammers. Because, apparently, there is no end to the list of potential victims. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. And don’t let unscrupulous profit peddlers ruin your holidays.