Beware of Holiday Scams

Beware of Holiday Scams

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year… for Criminals, Thieves and Scammers

Red and green Christmas tree ornaments in a clear bowl

Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District

This holiday season scammers and identity thieves are hoping to take advantage of shoppers who may be too preoccupied with travel, gift-buying, and festivities to notice. Therefore, during the holidays, it is even more important to remain vigilant while shopping in stores or online.

More people are turning to online shopping for their holiday gifts. The National Retail Federation forecasts consumers to spend about $721 billion this holiday season.  However, this increase in online spending comes with a greater risk for thieves to steal your money or your identity.

Here are some common holiday scams and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim:

Deals That Are Too Good to Be True –while shopping online keep the old adage in mind, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. During the holidays, shoppers are looking for huge deals, and scammers know it. These thieves often set up websites that appear to be legitimate, just to steal your personal information and/or to download a virus onto your computer.

It is important to make sure any site in which you shop contains an HTTPS security designation. Another simple way to know if the website is authentic is to look for the padlock symbol that appears in the address bar of the retailer. Here is an example of an Amazon online address bar.

Holiday Phishing Scams – Around the holidays, beware of emails pretending to be sent from familiar companies like FedEx or UPS. These emails claim to provide links for package tracking information. These links, once clicked on, will either steal your personal information or download a virus onto your computer. Remember, if you receive an email from someone you don’t know or weren’t expecting an email from, you should never click on links. Also, make sure you are using current antivirus software on your computer.

Identity Theft and ATM Skimmers

In Store Shopping:
    • Being vigilant is key to protecting yourself during the holiday season. Thieves target shoppers who are either struggling with packages and bags or those who are unaware of their surroundings. Thieves see this as an opportunity to steal your wallet or credit card numbers.
    • When using an ATM or other key pads, make sure to check for skimming devices that thieves install on ATMs and other card readers. These skimmers are placed over the existing key pad in order to access your account. It is also advised to cover the keypad when entering your pin number while purchasing items or getting money from an ATM
    • After each purchase, take time to put your credit card back into your wallet. Also, it may be worthwhile to purchase an RFID-blocking wallet. These wallets are designed to shield your credit card information from RFID readers and skimmers..
 Online Shopping:
  • When shopping online, experts advise consumers to use credit cards instead of debit cards. In case of fraud, both payments types can be disputed, however debit card payments are automatically deducted from your bank account. Therefore, it may take longer to get your money back.

Gift Cards– Gift cards are a great idea for people on our shopping list. However, a record number of retail stores are closing their doors, so you should consider the retailer’s financial situation before buying a gift card. If the retailer closes or declares bankruptcy, the recipient may not be able to use the gift card.

Package Delivery Theft- Having packages delivered to our homes makes us a target for thieves who case neighborhoods and even follow delivery trucks looking for packages sitting on porches. There are ways to prevent this from happening to you. You can have your packages delivered to their office, a local pick-up area, like a UPS Store or try to schedule delivery times when someone will be home, if possible. Online shoppers can also set up tracking notifications, to know when an item is delivered.

Charitable Giving Tips – Give to charities wisely. At this time of year, we all want to give to charities that pull on our heart strings. But beware of giving money to charities that are fake or irresponsible. Do your research to make sure to support the many legitimate and deserving charities that can use our help during the holidays.

The 2018 Consumer Protection Guide – This guide provides more information about protecting yourself as a consumer, including online identity theft, charity scams, item recalls and more.

The holiday season brings out the best and worst in people. Therefore, you should be vigilant because the holidays are a lucrative time of year for thieves and scammers who are trying their hardest to get into your bank account.

For more tips on how to keep your identity safe and avoid holiday scams, contact Laurie Osgood, UF/IFAS Extension, Gadsden County at Osgoodlb@ufl.edu  or call (850) 875-7255.

 

Healthful – and Yummy – Holiday Treats!

Healthful – and Yummy – Holiday Treats!

Cranberries cooking

It may seem like the year has barely started, but the holiday season is here! A little bit of planning now can go a long way toward avoiding that, “I blew my diet and need bigger jeans” feeling. Believe it or not, there are holiday treats that are nutritionally guilt-free, as long as you don’t go overboard. As with so many other things, moderation is the key! Below are some classic holiday favorite foods with hidden health benefits:

Sweet Potatoes: It’s no secret that sweet potatoes are good for you – but they may have even more benefits than you think! Sweet potatoes contain a lot of Vitamin A. That’s a great source of alpha and beta carotene that helps keep your eyes, bones and immune system in top shape. Sweet potatoes are also one of the top food sources of potassium, with almost twice as much of the mineral as you find in a banana. When choosing sweet potatoes, look for ones that are firm with tapered ends and a uniform shape and color. Miniature sweet potatoes are fun and pack the same great health benefits.

Cranberries: Bright red cranberries are a little too tart to eat alone but they add a beautiful festive touch to any holiday table. With only 45 calories per cup plus a healthy dose of Vitamin C and fiber, they’re a winner all the way around. Cranberries also have more disease-fighting antioxidants than almost every other fruit and vegetable. Buy cranberries fresh in the fall and winter and use them soon, as they don’t last long. Store them in a tightly sealed bag in your refrigerator to keep them fresh longer.

Nuts: Yes, they’re high in calories – and fat – but nuts are also loaded with vitamins and minerals. Eating a handful of nuts a few times a week may lower your risk of heart disease. Nuts are full of antioxidants, energy and protein. Think of nuts, in moderation, as a Christmas gift for your body!

Cocoa: What better way to begin – or end – the day than a steaming hot cup of chocolate? Knowing the health benefits of cocoa give us even more reason to love it. Remember those healthful antioxidants? Dark chocolate is loaded with them. In fact, if you choose dark chocolate with a high percent of cocoa solids, you may help lower your blood pressure, improve your blood vessel health and control your cholesterol. So, give in to those chocolate cravings – in moderation, of course!

There are lots of ways to make healthier holiday dishes. Check with your local UF/IFAS Extension Office for delicious recipe ideas that won’t break your budget or your waistline.

Spend Smarter This Holiday Season

By adopting a few smart spending strategies, you can help avoid overspending and decrease holiday stress. (UF/IFAS File Photo)

It’s that time again – the most wonderful time of the year!  For many of us, though, it can be a time of stress, frustration, and financial uncertainty as we drive ourselves past our limits to try to make everyone happy and everything perfect.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

First of all, perfect – the type of perfect reserved for TV and movie holidays – is an unrealistic goal.  Focus on what will make you happy while working within your means.  One of the biggest seasonal stressors is spending too much on gifts, food, and home décor.  While it may look beautiful and idyllic at the time, you may suffer buyer’s remorse in the New Year when the bills start rolling in.

The most important thing you can do to help curb holiday spending is to set a budget.  Maybe you love to go all out for Christmas.  Great!  But if this is what you enjoy, you need to make a plan to save the money over the preceding months so it will be available to spend when the time comes.  Spending money you cannot really afford to spend or overusing credit is a surefire way to increase debt and cause strife later.

The holidays should be about family, friends, and the joy of giving.  It should not be a competition to see who can have the biggest, brightest, most fabulous home, gifts, etc.  Retailers and the media may try to convince you – or more to the point, your kids – that you must have the latest this or the greatest that in order to make your holiday complete.  But resist their messaging and stick to your financial guns!

Including children in any discussions about holiday spending is important.  Let them know that you have only a certain amount of money to spend on gifts and help them understand the importance of sticking to your budget.  While you may feel pressured to get everything on your child’s wish list, focusing on a few special items may help you stay within budget.

Cash and debit cards are the best ways to pay.  If the money is coming directly out of your pocket, you may give each purchase a second thought.  Use credit cards wisely.  If you choose to purchase with credit in order to receive airline miles or rewards points, keep close track of your purchases and only charge as much as you can comfortably pay off in its entirety when the bill comes due.  The last thing you need or want is to still be paying off this year’s holiday spending next year.

Some of the most meaningful and treasured gifts are those that come from the heart.  Custom, handmade gifts really show a person you know them well and you care about them.  One large gift for an entire family that everyone can enjoy can also save money over buying something for each individual.  Many people also appreciate a donation in their name to a charity or cause that is near and dear to their hearts.

The holidays do not need to be stressful or break the bank.  By adopting a few smart spending practices, you can enjoy the holidays without the added worry.

For more information about this topic, please read the UF/IFAS publication “Five Steps to Seasonal Savings” at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FY/FY140500.pdf.

A Few of My Favorite Fall Things

A Few of My Favorite Fall Things

Favorite Fall Things
Photo Credit: Angela Hinkle

Fall is my favorite time of year. Let me share with you a few of my favorite Fall things to help explain why.

  1. Walking my dog in the heat of a summer morning is like trudging through a bowl of warm chowder. But with the cooler autumn mornings arriving, we become invigorated and feel like taking longer walks to add steps to the pedometer on my hip. Let’s hear it for more physical activity! For walking tips, check out cdc walking counts.
  2. Just think about all of those yummy, nutrient-dense foods available this time of year – peanuts, sweet potatoes, and squashes and gourds in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. See Florida Panhandle Produce in Season for seasonal produce in the Florida Panhandle.
  3. Okay, so leaves don’t really change color a whole lot when fall weather hits the panhandle of Florida. But I have this great tree outside my office window. My horticulture agent says it’s a Bald Cypress. This time of year, I get to see it change leaf colors from green, to golden yellow, to burnt orange. Simply beautiful. Look around your neighborhood to see what bounty of colors you can find.
  4. Though you will not find me wearing any shade of orange or deep yellow (those are definitely not in my color palette), I do cherish all the oranges, deep reds, purples, and yellows found in the flowers, pumpkins, scarecrows, and decorative corn stalks. Perk up your area with some fall color. Dollar stores have lots to pick and choose from.
  5. I’ve had my DNA tested. I am, in fact, 41% Sicilian. My holidays can therefore start with Columbus Day, work their way through the fun of Halloween, the respectful honors of Veteran’s Day, and through Thanksgiving with a myriad of Fall Harvest Celebrations sprinkled in between.

To get you in the Fall mood, try this simmering potpourri recipe. Let me know if you like it and be sure to share with family and friends some of your favorite fall things.

Favorite Fall Stovetop Potpourri

Add any or all of the following ingredients to a small pot:  ground cinnamon, cinnamon sticks, orange peelings, ground ginger, whole cloves, ground cloves, vanilla extract, and almond extract. Add enough water to fill pot to rim. Then put the pot on the stove top at lowest setting. Add more water as necessary.   Enjoy!

 

Healthy Holidays: A New Tradition

We all have family traditions that make our holiday celebrations special. From your great-great-grandma’s sweet potato casserole or pecan pie, to your mother-in-law’s sausage stuffing or decadent plum pudding, there’s one thing that always seems to be a common factor among traditional holiday dishes: a massive amount of, fat, sugar, salt, and calories!

It’s not only a single meal but rather an entire season of parties, events, gatherings festivities, and unhealthy choices that add up to that holiday weight gain we resolve to lose when January rolls around. As the holiday season begins its rapid approach, take time and consider those past eating habits that set your new year off on the wrong foot. Why not make a resolution now to eat healthier this holiday season?

Just a few simple strategies can help make the difference and keep those unwanted pounds away. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t skip meals. Eating healthy on a regular basis will keep you from overindulging at holiday gatherings.
  • Use smaller plates for meals and gatherings and be mindful of portions
  • Choose more vegetables and smaller helpings of entrees and desserts
  • Drink more water and minimize alcoholic drinks and eggnog
  • Make healthier recipe ingredient substitutions when cooking and baking (Mayo Clinic):
    • Instead of heavy cream, use fat free half and half or evaporated skim milk
    • Instead of bacon, try Canadian bacon, turkey bacon or smoked turkey
    • Decrease sugar in baked goods by half and add vanilla, nutmeg, or cinnamon to intensify sweetness
    • Substitute applesauce or prune puree for half of the butter, shortening, or oil
    • Use two egg whites or ¼ cup egg substitute for each whole egg
    • Replace salt with fresh or dried herbs and spices.

We can all still experience the joy of the holiday season, without making food the focus. Make a resolution to be mindful and eat healthier this holiday season, and your waistline will thank you.

Some additional links that you may find helpful:

https://healthyforgood.heart.org/eat-smart/articles/holidays-healthy-eating-guide

https://www.cdc.gov/features/HealthyResolutions/

https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/printablematerials/2013-HolidayMakeover.pdf

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/healthy-recipes/art-20047195?p=1