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With the holiday shopping season now in full swing both in stores and online, law enforcement officials are warning consumers about seasonal scams.

On the national level, a group of federal partners at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center have teamed with local retail merchants and nonprofit organizations warning consumers to be wary of holiday shopping scams designed to dupe them into buying counterfeit products.

According to federal officials, during the holiday season each year, local markets are flooded with counterfeit products being sold at stores, on street corners, and online, not only victimizing consumers and providing shoddy products, but also putting their personal financial information at risk.

According to the FBI, the most popular counterfeit products seized during the holiday season include headphones, sports jerseys, personal care products, shoes, toys, luxury goods, cell phones and electronic accessories.

“The FBI urges the American public to be skeptical about offers that sound too good to be true when doing their holiday shopping,” said Ronald Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “Counterfeit merchandise dilutes legitimate brand-name products and can even be dangerous.”

If Fairfax County residents do suspect that their financial information has been compromised, or that they have been a victim of credit card fraud, they can report it to the Fairfax County Police Financial Crime Online Reporting System.

“Overall, we get about 4,000 of these types of reports annually,” said Det. Clinton Beach, who heads the reporting system. “Credit card theft is when your credit card is actually stolen,” Beach said. “Credit card fraud is an illegal transaction that is made using the information from that card.”

Beach said that any transaction that involves physically handing your credit card over to another individual can potentially be risky. A common form of credit card fraud called “skimming” can occur at restaurants or other retail establishments by unscrupulous employees who don’t need to steal a credit card to commit fraud. “It only takes 10 seconds for a waiter, waitress or retail person to take your credit card and write down your number and then go home and pay their bills online with your information,” Beach said.

Fairfax County Police are also warning online shoppers to be vigilant about making safe and secure transactions while shopping online.

“If you are planning to make a financial transaction on a retail website, first check that site’s URL address and make sure it starts with HTTPS, and not just HTTP before entering any financial or sensitive information ,” said police spokesman Bud Walker. “That ‘S’ indicates that it is a secure website. If you don’t see that ‘S’ on the page asking you for your information, look instead for a phone number or some other way of making that purchase.”

For those who shop in person at retail establishments, City of Falls Church Police say there are certain precautions that can be taken to ensure a safer shopping experience.

“When shopping, do not leave valuables in your vehicle. If you make purchases and have further shopping to do, place your purchases in the trunk, not in plain view,” suggests Chief of Police Mary Gavin. “Also keep receipts with you so merchandise cannot be stolen and then returned for cash.”

Some additional federal agencies also offer words of wisdom for holiday shoppers.

“Consumers need to be aware that counterfeiters don’t care if the products you buy are well made, if they make you sick, or if they arrive at all. These criminals are preying on your holiday spirit of giving to make a quick buck and fund their criminal enterprises,” said Lev Kubiak, director of the ICE-led IPR Center.

“Unfortunately, a lump of coal and stale fruitcakes are not the only worries shoppers have this holiday season,” adds David Hirschmann, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com