Cass County sheriff offers holiday safety tips

Published 11:34 pm Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The rush and goodwill that surround the holidays can increase the opportunities for criminal activity. The Cass County Sheriff’s Office offers a compilation of holiday safety information from across the nation to assist citizens in having a safe and happy holiday season.

Shopping safety

• Be alert and aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to who is around you and what activities are happening. Don’t leave the safety of a building or your vehicle until you have ensured all is secure and safe. Trust your instincts; if you feel uncomfortable with a place or person, get away.

• Park in a well-lit area.

• Remember to lock your vehicle. Keep vehicle doors and windows locked while you are in it and especially when you are not. Use anti-theft steering wheel clubs or locks as well. A thief is looking for easy targets and anything you can do to deter them from choosing your vehicle, the better.

• Minimize the number of valuables left in your vehicle and keep valuables such as electronics (including cell phones and DVDs), gifts and other “theft attractors” out of sight.

• Protect your purse or wallet and clean out any unnecessary items before leaving home. Don’t carry large amounts of cash or extra credit cards. Carry only those cards that you will need to use that day. Keep a master list of all cards so if your wallet is stolen, they can be reported promptly to the appropriate banking facility.

• Never leave your purse, wallet or cell phone unattended in a public place.

• Don’t overburden yourself with packages while shopping.

• Shop with a buddy — there is safety in numbers.

• Role-play with children about what should happen in the event you are separated.

• Have your keys out and ready when you return to your vehicle.

• Do not leave your car unattended with the motor running or with the keys in the ignition — even for the very short time needed to do a quick errand or pay for fuel.

• Only make online purchases from trusted, secure websites. Look for “https” in the Web address to verify security.

Beware these holiday scams (courtesy McAfee and

‘Tis the season. The carolers are caroling. The shoppers are shopping. And the scammers are busily scamming away.

Attackers are still preying on shoppers looking for last-minute gifts and online deals. And in the thick of all this holiday cheer, many good-willed citizens forget that there still are cyber attackers waiting to take advantage of our money, lack of time and abundance of good will. More and more, holiday scammers are perfecting the art of the multifaceted approach in their attack strategy — you’ll increasingly find approaches like broad e-mail blasts working in tandem with well-researched and acutely focused attacks.

And with more people than ever buying holiday gifts online, attackers are finding even more ways to be at the receiving end of their credit card purchases. So zip up your purses and make sure your passwords are airtight before launching your holiday shopping trek this year.

Here’s what to watch this season:

• E-card greetings — An e-mailed greeting card looks like it’s from a reputable company, and you’re curious about who sent it. If you open the card in a burst of holiday cheer, you’ll get an error message saying the animation won’t work unless you download the latest software. Don’t do it.

The software is a trojan horse that gives the sender complete access to your computer, including online banking, stock trading and taxes. This scam is effective because after downloading the software, the animated e-card comes to life and your computer functions normally. It may take weeks before you discover financial irregularities.

Solution: Don’t open an e-card or e-mail attachment from anyone you don’t know. Never download questionable software from the Internet. Always install the latest security updates from Microsoft or other software companies. Keep your virus protection up to date.

• Phony sign-up table — ID thieves set up a table at a mall and urge passersby to sign up for a new credit card. Many folks overspend during the holidays and another credit card, especially one with a low introductory rate, seems like a good idea.

But there’s a reason you’ve never head of the company offering the card — it doesn’t exist. On the application for the phony card, you provide name, address, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number, driver’s license number — all the information a thief needs to steal your identity and destroy your credit by running up huge bills.

During the holiday season, mall security may not immediately know who has permission to set up a table. Those who haven’t been approved will be asked to leave and they’ll take all the vital credit information with them, no questions asked. The scam can be pulled at swap meets, hobby shows, sporting events — you name it. Fake credit card applications that arrive in the mail are a variation on the theme.

Solution: Apply for a credit card only through a bank.

• Account information needed — If you get an e-mail asking you to confirm your ID and account number, some entrepreneur (and candidate for prison stripes) is fishing — or “phishing” in Internet lingo — for your credit information with intent to defraud.

This scam takes many forms and frequently shows up in e-mails purporting to be from your bank, credit card company, online stock trader or an online auction company. Most notes say there’s been a security breech or a computer glitch and the company needs to double-check your information to be sure your account hasn’t been compromised.

In short, the scammers say they’re helping you and dire consequences will befall you if you don’t respond immediately. A variation on the theme uses a toll-free phone number.

Solution: Don’t respond and delete the note. Would you give your financial information to a stranger on the street? Not likely. So, never give your personal ID or credit information to someone you don’t know via e-mail or over the phone, even if that person claims to be from your bank.

• You’re a winner! — You get an e-mail or phone message saying that you’ve won a nifty prize and all you have to do is visit a website or return the call by a certain time to collect your prize. If you respond, you’ll be asked to provide personal information such as name, e-mail and home address to “verify” that you’ve won the prize. Then you’ll be asked to perform a detailed task to win the prize.

Get this: There is no prize, even if you complete a task that would make Sisyphus look like a slacker. This is disclosed in the 99th paragraph of the fine print, but few read that far into the legalese jungle in their eagerness to pick up the prize.

The scam is so simple and obvious that many overlook it: The goal is to get current personal information. It’s then sold to companies that will send you endless spam or junk mail offers for stuff you neither need nor want.

Solution: Ignore phony e-mails or phone calls saying you’ve won the prize of a lifetime.

• You’re approved! — Some less-than-stellar companies view the holiday season as prime time to rope unsuspecting, or needy, folks into new credit cards with interest rates that would make Shylock blush. Typically, the card offered is valid only at specific online stores and may be limited to certain types of merchandise of questionable quality offered at inflated prices. The card is likely to come with a high credit limit to encourage wanton spending — and a stiff membership fee, even if you don’t use it.

Solution: Don’t respond to offers for special cards. Deal with a major bank when applying for a credit card. You’ll be able to use the bank’s card anywhere, the interest rate and any fees will be disclosed and you’ll build your credit rating. Remember that banks compete for your business and few charge an annual fee for the use of a credit card.

• Oops, wrong number! — A breathless caller will leave a message, apparently in error, on your voice mail offering what purports to be inside information on a sweet deal. Remember that the set up is the first step in the scam: the phone call reached you in error so the message will be addressed to Tom, Dick or Suzy Two Shoes.

The scam will offer enticing merchandise — a high definition TV, for example — at a steep discount. But you can bet it will be Brand X junk with no warranty and the good folks at Fly By Night, Inc. might just swipe your credit card number as part of the deal. This is a variation on the “pump and dump” theme made famous by Wall Street bucket shops selling shabby stocks. In that scam, the caller pumps up a dog stock that is rightfully ignored by shrewd investors.

However, if the scammers get enough suckers to buy it, the price will rise and they dump the shares they bought for next to nothing on the next round of suckers and walk away with a hefty profit. The stock price will collapse as surely as the highly touted merchandise falls apart and the scam artists are on to the next round of fraud.

Solution: Never respond to a hot offer from a company or person you don’t know. Report scams to the Better Business Bureau or your local police. Don’t expect a detective to show up at your door, but the cops are always on the look out for the latest practitioners of time-worn scams.

Just remember what your mother taught you: If it’s too good to be true, it’s a scam. Keep that in mind and no crook will spoil your holiday.

Indoor holiday lighting

• Buy/use only lighting sets and extension cords that bear the Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) or Factory Mutual (FM) label and are specifically marked for indoor use.

• Make certain you take time to unroll/untangle and inspect each set of lights — new or old — for worn insulation, bare/frayed wires, broken or cracked sockets and loose connections. If you find broken strings, do not try to repair the string. Throw it away. Replace broken/damaged lamps/bulbs and unplug the set prior to changing lamps/bulbs.

• Be careful not to overload electrical outlets. Always look for the manufacturer’s recommendations on the number of light strings that can be strung together and other precautions listed on the packaging for the lights. If no manufacturer’s instructions are available, as a general rule, never string more than three sets of lights per single extension cord.

• Protect the electrical wires from damage. Don’t run lights/wires behind drapes, under carpet, through doorways or where they will be walked on. Don’t not use nails or tacks to hang wires. Plastic not-conductive “hangers” are available for various holiday light-set hanging needs.

• Always unplug lights before replacing light bulbs or fuses.

Outdoor lighting

• Buy/use only lighting sets and extension cords that bear the Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) or Factory Mutual (FM) label and are specifically marked for outdoor use.

• Always look for the manufacturer’s recommendations on the number of lights strings that can be strung together and other precautions listed on the packaging for the lights.

• Check all light strings for fraying, aging and heat damage. Throw away any strings that show signs of damage.

• Connect strings of lights to an extension cord before plugging the cord into an outlet.

• Always test your light strings before setting up your ladder — replacing broken/burnt-out bulbs is much easier on the ground than on a ladder/roof!

• To hold lights in place, string them through hooks or insulated staples, not nails or tacks. Never pull or tug lights to remove them.

• Plug all outdoor electric decorations into circuits with GFI (ground fault circuit interrupter) protection to avoid potential shocks.

• If you are using a ladder, avoid contact with overhead power lines when setting up your ladder, stringing lights or working on the roof.

• Wherever extension cords and light strings are connected together outdoors, keep the connections dry by wrapping them with friction tape or plastic.

Tree safety

• Fresh trees — When selecting your tree, make sure to shake the tree vigorously, tap it on the ground and watch for excessive loss of needles. If the tree loses a lot of needles, it’s already drying out, and a dry tree significantly increases the risk of the tree catching fire in your home. The trunk butt should be sticky with resin. Fresh trees should be green and the needles should be difficult to pull from the branches. Another good test is to take a single needle and bend it between your fingers. The needle should bend, not break.

• Once you’ve selected a fresh tree and get it home, secure it in a sturdy stand and provide it with adequate water. At holiday time, many stores carry products designed to help you keep track of when your tree needs water. Keeping your tree well-watered will keep it supple so it retains its needles, making for less cleanup after the holidays and a lesser fire danger. Be sure and keep the stand filled with water because both cut and live trees dry out rapidly in heated rooms.

• Use only non-combustible or flame-resistant materials to trim a tree. Choose tinsel or artificial icicles of plastic or nonleaded metals.

• Artificial trees —If you’re about to buy an artificial tree, the most important thing to look for is the “Fire Resistant” label. This means the tree has been treated with a chemical that makes it resist burning. It does not mean the tree can’t, or won’t, catch on fire. Never use electric lights on metallic trees; use spotlights for illumination. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.

• Greens — Evergreen (no cedar) cuttings may be used in limited quantities, but keep greens away from heat sources (radiators, air vents, large appliances, light receptacles, etc.) and don’t smoke near trees or greens. To be as safe as possible, greens/cuttings used for your door adornment or for corridor/stairwell decorations (or really for use anywhere other than as a table centerpiece) should be flame proofed by flocking or other treatment.

• Tree lighting — Decorate the tree first, and plug in the lights last.

• Try to insure your lamps/bulbs don’t touch the tree or other decorations. Take time to unroll/untangle and carefully inspect each set of lights before stringing it on the tree. It’s easier to find and replace broken and burnt-out bulbs before stringing your lights on the tree! (And if a light strand doesn’t work at all, better to know it before it’s on the tree, too!)

• Turn off or unplug your indoor holiday lighting whenever the decorated area of the house is unattended — not just when going to bed or leaving the house. Nowadays, relatively cheap wired and wireless “remote control” switches are available to ease this task (and keep you from having to crawl/bend behind a Christmas tree or furniture to unplug a lighting set/scene). Outdoor lighting timers and remote-control sets are also available and should be considered.

• Never use lighted candles on a tree or near other evergreens. When using candles for holiday accents, always use non-flammable holders, and place candles where they cannot be overturned.

• In homes with small children, take special care to avoid decorations that are sharp or breakable; keep trimmings with small removable parts out of the reach of children to avoid the child swallowing or inhaling small pieces. Avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to eat them.

• Wear gloves to avoid eye and skin irritation while decorating with spun glass “angel hair.” Follow container directions carefully to avoid lung irritation while decorating with artificial snow sprays.

• Remove all wrapping papers, bags, paper, ribbons and bows from tree and fireplace areas after gifts are opened. These items can pose suffocation and choking hazards to a small child, or can cause a fire if near flame.

• Live tree and greens/cuttings removal — Live trees and greens/cuttings should be removed as soon as practical after the holiday for which they were used.

Candle safety

• Make sure candles are placed in sturdy, non-combustible holders that will not tip, away from decorations, drapes and other combustible materials.

• Check your candles frequently to make sure they don’t burn down too far or drip hot wax.

• Keep small children away from candles and never leave children unattended in a room with lit candles.

• Keep matches and lighters up high out of the reach of children.

• Do not use candles to decorate Christmas trees.

• Keep Yule logs and menorahs away from drapes, trees or any other potentially flammable objects.

• Extinguish candles and turn off decorative lights before leaving home or going to sleep.

• For holiday decorating, you should purchase/use only materials labeled as noncombustible, flame-resistant, or flame-retardant. Locate all decorations and decorating materials away from heat sources.

• These materials should never be used for holiday decorations, under any circumstances, because they are inherently combustible or cannot be flame proofed: bamboo, cedar trees/branches, corn stalks/shucks, cotton or confetti (loose, in large quantities), dry moss/leaves, flammable powders/liquids, hay/straw (loose or baled), paper streamers (serpentine), plastic sheeting/pellets, sawdust, tumbleweeds and wood bark/shavings.

• Keep holiday plants such as mistletoe, holly berries and Christmas cactus away from children and pets. Poinsettias were previously considered a poisonous plant; recent studies have shown that the poinsettia is nontoxic. Ingestion of small amounts may result in mild gastrointestinal irritation (upset stomach) and could make pets very sick.

Toy safety

• Select toys to suit the age, abilities, skills and interest level of the intended child. Toys too advanced may pose safety hazards for younger children.

• Before buying a toy or allowing your child to play with a toy that he has received as a gift, read the instructions carefully.

• To prevent both burns and electrical shocks, don’t give young children (under age 10) a toy that must be plugged into an electrical outlet. Instead, buy toys that are battery-operated.

• Children under age three can choke on small parts contained in toys or games. Government regulations specify that toys for children under age three cannot have parts less than 1.25 inches in diameter and 2.25 inches long.

• Children under age 8 can choke or suffocate on un-inflated or broken balloons. Remove strings and ribbons from toys before giving them to young children.

• Watch for pull toys with strings that are more than 12 inches in length. They could be a strangulation hazard for babies.

Food safety

• Bacteria are often present in raw foods. Fully cook meats and poultry, and thoroughly wash raw vegetables and fruits.

• Be sure to keep hot liquids and foods away from the edges of counters and tables, where they can be easily knocked over by a young child’s exploring hands.

• Wash your hands frequently, and make sure your children do the same.

• Never put a spoon used to taste food back into food without washing it.

• Always keep raw foods and cooked foods separate, and use separate utensils when preparing them.

• Always thaw meat in the refrigerator, never on the countertop.

• Foods that require refrigeration should never be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

• Monitor your children’s intake of holiday sweets. It’s OK to let them indulge for a special occasion but be sure to balance it out with healthier food choices the rest of the time.

Holiday driving

• Recognize that the holidays can cause stress — keep emotions under control while driving. Give other drivers plenty of space and always leave yourself a route to avoid an accident.

• If you attend parties where alcohol is served, remember to use a designated driver.

• Prepare for winter driving conditions and equip your vehicle with cold weather emergency supplies.

• AAA recommends that all drivers have the following equipment in a winter emergency kit: a cell phone, flashlight, small snow shovel and brush, traction mats, ice scraper, battery booster cables, warm blanket, flares/triangle warning devices, heavy gloves, windshield washer fluid, first aid kit, bottled water, energy bar.

• Minimize distractions such as talking on a cell phone.

• Take frequent breaks to avoid fatigue, especially when driving long distances. If you get tired, stop and rest until you’re able to drive with full attention

• Buckle up.

• Be patient. Give yourself extra time for gravel, especially poor weather conditions. Even in dry conditions, traffic during the holidays is heavier than normal, and it will take longer than you expect to get around.

Happy visiting

• Clean up immediately after a holiday party. A toddler could rise early and choke on leftover food or come in contact with alcohol or tobacco.

• Remember that the homes you visit may not be childproofed. Keep an eye out for danger spots.

• Keep a laminated list with all the important phone numbers you or a baby-sitter are likely to need in case of an emergency. Include your pediatrician and the poison control center.

• Ask your neighbor if he has a gun before sending your kids over to play. If the answer is yes, you need to make absolutely sure that all guns are stored unloaded and locked — ideally in a gun safe — with ammunition locked separately. Include the question along with other things you might normally discuss before sending your child to someone’s house.

• Traveling, visiting family members, getting presents, shopping, etc. can all increase your child’s stress levels. Sticking to your child’s usual routines, including sleep schedules and timing of naps, can help you and your child enjoy the holidays and reduce stress.

Fireplace safety

• Fireplace chimneys should be cleaned annually, preferably by a professional chimney sweep.

• Fireplaces should be equipped with a safety screen or doors, which should be kept closed at all times when the fire is lit.

• Before lighting any fire, remove all greens, boughs, papers, and other decorations from fireplace area. Check to see that flue is open.

• Use care with “fire salts,” which produce colored flames when thrown on wood fires. They contain heavy metals that can cause intense gastrointestinal irritation and vomiting if eaten. Keep them away from children and avoid inhaling smoke from their flames.

• Do not burn wrapping papers in the fireplace. A flash fire may result as wrappings ignite suddenly and burn intensely.