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Diane Dimond
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Beware the Online Holiday Scams

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OK, so the shopping days left until Christmas and Hanukkah are dwindling. You haven't gotten half of what you need to get done finished yet! The malls are crammed, the weather turns lousy just at the time you want to go shopping, and between the cost of gasoline and parking ... well, it just seems easier to stay inside and hit the computer for some get-'er-done time on the Internet.

If you decide to do your holiday shopping online instead of standing in line at your local department store, beware of the criminal element you might encounter.

Those designer sunglasses for 60 percent off? The NBA jerseys or golf equipment for half price? Popular Ugg brand boots, Louis Vuitton handbags or Hollywood movie box sets at deep discounts? Realize that they could very well be counterfeit or pirated products.

Besides your chance of getting a second-rate product, you might also plunk down your credit card and be charged for items you never receive.

When you run across these so-called "bargains" online, it's the perfect time to repeat to yourself that old saying, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Federal agents at the FBI and Immigration and Custom Enforcement have been actively tracking illegal Internet activity since June of 2010 and have shut down hundreds of these illegitimate sites. On the so-called "Cyber Monday" after this year's Thanksgiving holiday — which has become the traditional day for rolling out massive Internet shopping deals — the feds announced they had pulled the plug on 150 more of them.

After making a series of undercover buys from the suspect spots and determining the products were not the real thing, the agencies slapped a big old banner up on each site informing shoppers the domain had been seized by authorities and its operators were under investigation for violation of federal laws.

We don't know yet just how much credit card fraud has occurred over the life of this federal effort or how much revenue the manufacturers of the genuine products have lost due to this illegal activity. But, get this: After the sites were transferred into federal custody, agents counted at least 77 million hits from would-be purchasers. Millions more people could have been scammed.

"More and more Americans are doing their holiday shopping online, and they may not realize that purchasing counterfeit goods results in American jobs lost, stolen American business profits and American consumers receiving substandard products," ICE Director John Morton said.

So far, the feds have put some 350 illicit sites out of business since Operation In Our Sites went into effect.

But the elephant in the room no one talks about is that 350 out of the gazillion Internet sites out there is really just a half a drop in the bucket. Those seized sites were probably quickly replaced by new ones. Authorities say many of the illicit domains are registered to thieves based in China.

Internet crimes often take away law enforcement's ability to make quick face-to-face arrests.

You may still think it is worthwhile to take the risk to try to get a bargain gift to impress your unwitting friends and family, but here's one more reason not to feed this illegal beast.

Morton says his agents have come to believe that "the illicit profits made from these types of illegal ventures often fuel other kinds of organized crime."

So, this isn't like buying something from the street vendor downtown that you may have questions about. ("Gee, is this DVD the real movie, or when I play it at home will I see a bad copy made with a handheld video camera in a theater?") Internet piracy and counterfeiting is now a worldwide, untold-millions-of-dollar business designed to rake in money to finance even more crimes against us.

Don't fall for it, folks. Stick to the websites of businesses that you know and trust or those for which you've gotten a word-of-mouth seal of approval. And my advice is to ignore those little box ads in the side margin of websites that promise: "The lowest prices ever — guaranteed! Click here."

I once ordered some of that expensive flea and tick medicine for my two cats through one of those bargain-basement Internet ads. Although my credit card was charged right away, it took weeks and weeks for the product to arrive, and when it did I noticed it came from the United Kingdom. Now I wonder if I dosed my cats with something worthless — or worse, something dangerous.

Look, I know the mall isn't fun this time of year. So, maybe the mom-and-pop craft shop on the corner featuring products made in the U.S.A. or a gift handmade by you would fit the bill this year.

If that's not an option, if the Internet is your only viable shopping avenue, then repeat after me, "If it seems too good to be true ..." Well, you know the rest.

Diane Dimond's book, "Cirque Du Salahi — Be Careful Who You Trust," can be ordered at Amazon.com. Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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