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Ho ho ho! Merry ripoff! Take some precautions in a season of fraud
The wait times to customer service are unusually long as you call to report a charge you never made. That's because this is a season of both openhearted giving and deceit. - photo by Lois M. Collins
I'm a generous soul so, for the second time at Christmas, I ordered an expensive camera online and arranged for it to be picked up at a local department store in Florida, despite the fact that I don't know anyone in the town to which I sent it.

Then, apparently still on a holiday-giving high, I also canceled my daughter's cellphone purchase contract (Sorry, Aly!), then shipped a brand-new iPhone 7 to a town I didn't know existed in New Jersey.

Or at least that's what my credit-card and cellphone bills would like people to think about me: Golly, she's a giver!

This season of generosity and faith and, for the most part, kindness hands-down my favorite time of year, despite snow I don't love and cold that leaves me feeling brittle also brings out predators on a grand scale.

You can tell how bad it is by the wait times as you try to reach customer service to dispute a charge. I was on hold with my cellphone carrier for 56 minutes, then spent another 15 as the company representative tried to untangle why a routine monthly bill I'd paid two days before suddenly had a balance of more than $400, due instantly. That charge, it turned out, was the cost to get out of the contract I'd supposedly canceled. Then we had to add a few minutes to text and verify my daughter hadn't ordered a new phone without my permission, something I knew but of which he had to be convinced before he gave me the number for the fraud department.

That led to another phone call and an even longer wait because, as an especially competent young man who answered told me, fraud is popping from mid-November to mid-January. It lingers into the post-holiday season while scammers try to get in one last rip-off, hoping folks won't notice it amid after-holiday bills.

Although the cellphone company will work some digital magic so the new iPhone it shipped out to an unauthorized stranger will not activate, there's probably yet another, not-yet-identified victim downstream who hasn't yet been ripped off. It's coming.

The fraud guy said it's likely the person who managed to order the phone online using my daughter's phone number never mind that I'm the only one with the code to order on the account or make changes like dropping the contract will make money despite my efforts to thwart it. The phone will probably be sold online to someone who's looking for a bargain. It will be offered new in its original packaging at a price that's not crazy but is a good deal. The phone, of course, will be worthless. It wasn't paid for and the cellphone company can prevent it from making calls. That thus adds a third victim to the deal that started with me and then cheated the cellphone carrier out of the money for the phone once I got out from under the charge. And on it goes.

These are not victimless crimes and people who figure that companies like my cellphone carrier are big enough to absorb the cost are wrong. We all pay more for all kinds of service because of fraud. It steals our money, our merchandise and our time.

In the early days of online fraud, it seemed to me that big credit-card companies, phone carriers and others were unwittingly complicit, because it was easier to write off the cost than to pursue it. I think it's ballooned past that point.

Until the punishment is severe enough to deter these thieves, all we can do is be careful.