'Tis the season to be ... wary of e-cards
Before you click on that holiday greeting, learn how you may be helping a hacker or spammer.
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Here are some ways to sniff out the good e-cards from the bad.
Check who sent it. Don't open anything from someone you don't know, says Max Weinstein, a project manager at StopBadware.org.
"If it just says that you got a card from a 'friend' or 'family member,' assume it's spam," he says. "Real e-cards will say the name and probably the e-mail address of the sender." This first rule should apply to all e-mail, he adds.
If you're not sure that "Joe" is the Joseph that you know, reply to the sender or call your friend just to make sure that he sent it, says Mr. Cowings at Symantec.
Look for verification codes. Along with links, most big e-card companies now include individualized numbers with each greeting. That way, if you're worried about where a hyperlink might lead, you can go to, say, Hallmark.com directly and type in the code to receive your e-card. That way, you stay within the safety of their website.
Beware of other holiday scams. With online shopping reaching record highs this year, fraud experts expect a similar rise in "phishing" schemes. Last December, the Federal Trade Commission received 24,000 reports of websites attempting to fool users into giving up their credit-card information.
Don't let down your guard after New Year's. Last July, the FBI issued a warning of "Internet fraud schemes" tied to e-greetings after they "received a rising number of complaints from citizens over the past few weeks."
"These spam e-mail messages are hoaxes," the warning says, "and should be immediately deleted."
The greener side of greeting cards
Americans mail 2 billion paper cards between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. And by January, many of them are in the garbage. Recycling those discarded greetings could save the equivalent of 666,600 trees, according to the British environmental group Friends of the Earth.
So, looking beyond the potential dark side of e-cards, several online card companies have started focusing on the greener aspect of online greetings. Here are a few legitimate e-card websites that can help you spread cheer without creating waste:
TreeGreetings.com – For each of its e-cards that users buy, the company will plant a tree. Sporting the tag line "the gift that keeps on growing," TreeGreetings lets shoppers select a kind of tree (shade, flowering, or fruit) and whether they want it to blossom in Central America or the United States, as well as which customizable animation they wish to send. The card-tree combos cost anywhere from $6 to $10.
BlueMountain.com – Run by American Greetings, the largest e-card company, this subscription-based website (starting at $14 for the first year) has a vast catalog of professionally designed cards. They offer selections for even the most dubious of holidays, such as Dec. 25's lesser-known celebration: Gravity Day. The first month of service is free.
MOMA.org/ecards – If you seek a more cultured touch, New York's Museum of Modern Art offers free e-cards of some of its most popular art, including work from Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne.
Photobucket.com – This free photo-sharing website offers a simple slide-show creator that lets users design, send, and post animations online. The site is currently promoting a "Save Paper, Send Slide Shows" Christmas theme, sponsored by the Nature Conservancy.