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Editorial: Watch out for phone crooks

Smartphones and cellphones make communication easy. They fit well into a society interested in immediate gratification.

But there's a downside, too. The nature of these phones makes them targets for thieves.

Shoppers with smartphones use their devices to compare prices, check store inventories and buy online. Meantime, cybercriminals follow the money. So be sure not to give these crooks bank account or credit card numbers.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) has provided the following tips to keep online shopping experiences pleasant:

--Protect smartphone and computer from malicious software. Malware can spy on internet surfing, steal personal information and use a computer or phone to send spam. Beware downloading screensavers, ringtones and e-cards. Download apps only from official app stores. Install quality firewall, virus protection and spyware protection software on the computer and keep it updated.

--Guard personal information. Don't fall for offers on social networks promising a free iPad or airline tickets in exchange for personal information. Before entering personal information online, read the privacy policy and understand what the website operators will do with the information. Never email credit card numbers--email isn't completely secure.

--Use search engines to check for scams--and for coupons. Key in a company or product name with words like "scam," "review" and "complaint." Read the reviews, but don't put trust in one review. When making the decision, search for the store with terms like "discount" or "free shipping."

--Compare costs. Use a cost-comparison website to check prices, making sure to also check shipping, handling and return fees.

--Pay by credit or charge card for extra protection. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the credit card company investigates.

--Read the fine print. Before submitting an order, carefully check return policies, restocking fees and who's responsible for the return shipping costs. Know when the items should be delivered and know whom to contact if they're not.

--Keep a paper trail. Print records of online transactions and copies of emails sent between the buyer and the seller. Review credit card statements when receiving them to look for unauthorized charges.

Criminals are also using another tool to get at valuable personal information: texts to cellphones.

Cellphone spam is annoying enough, especially when the owner is paying for each text. Moreover, that text message may be from crooks eager to get their hands on personal information and bank accounts.

At times, consumers throughout the U.S. have been bombarded by text messages claiming to be from well-known banks, saying "your credit card has been deactivated" and listing a phone number. People who dialed the number were asked for account information, Social Security numbers and other personal identification numbers. With a victim's information in hand, the criminals can drain bank accounts, buy things with a charge card or set up a phony charge account.

DATCP offers these consumer tips to help protect from cellphone text scams:

--If receiving a text about an account, don't respond. Call a bank or credit card company directly to check whether there's a problem with the account.

--Distribute wireless numbers sparingly. Criminals surf the net to collect phone numbers from social networking sites and directories.

--Before providing wireless numbers or other information online, read the website privacy policy to see if the company sells information. Some may have a box to check to indicate the provider doesn't want to receive messages from them or their partnering businesses.

--Contact the wireless service for information on blocking or reporting unwanted text messages.

For more information, contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection's hotline at 1-800-422-7128 or email at