It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately, the same is true for scammers.
Scammers are active year-round, but clever attackers prey on your emotions, and conduct attacks particularly around stressful periods such as the holidays. The seasonal spike in online shopping and payments make it especially lucrative for scammers—and riskier for you. But staying vigilant online during the busy shopping season can help protect your bank account and your personal information.
Scammers are also thriving in these uncertain times. The pandemic has created more opportunities for them to go after unwitting shoppers, even as the holidays return to a semblance of normalcy. Recent Ipsos data shows that nearly 70 percent of Americans are planning to shop mostly online during the 2021 holiday season, and that online shopping may even exceed 2020’s phenomenal levels.
As seasonal deals roll out, so do a glut of spoofing sites and fake social media posts, enticing you to buy products you’ll never receive, or harvesting your credit card numbers and other personal data. Avoiding scams can save your hard-earned money and—more importantly—can protect you from identity theft, which is costly and time-consuming to recover from.
Phishing scams are an especially prevalent form of holiday fraud. Phishing is a type of social engineering attack involving fraudulent communications that appear to be from a trusted source, used to steal your private data, or to install malware, such as spyware, on your device.
Most popular holiday scams
Phishing is the most common method scammers use to lure their victims, and they’re known to tailor their messaging for the holiday season. Here are some of the most popular scams to avoid as the festivities get under way:
The holidays are the year’s most popular time for charitable giving. By some estimates, a third of donations are made in December. Unfortunately, holiday scammers aren’t shy to capitalize on your goodwill. Fake charities are, sadly, the most common holiday scam.
Beware of dubious donation requests from familiar sounding organizations. In some cases, the charities scammers purport to represent don’t actually exist, and their websites are fronts, designed specifically to receive your payments.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that scammers often try to rush you into making a donation, or trick you into paying by thanking you for a donation you never made. They also tend to make vague sentimental claims with no specifics about where your funds will end up.
Americans have turned to online shopping like never before during the pandemic, and scammers are taking note. As millions of holiday packages start to move across the country, scammers—disguised as FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and the like—are sending out convincing phishing emails with fake delivery notices.
Scammers know you’ve probably got a lot of packages in transit. The hope is, between all of the real shipping and delivery notices, you’ll take their bait, follow the links in the phishing message and, once on their website, reveal your personal information, or accidently install malware.
Be cautious with shipping or delivery notifications. Delivery failure notifications are especially common. Contact your courier directly for information about your deliveries.
Gift card scams
This year’s supply chain troubles mean more people will be buying gift cards during the holiday season—Blackhawk Network forecasts a 27 percent increase—and there’s nothing scammers love more than gift cards. In fact, gift cards are the top payment method for scams; a quarter of people who report fraud say they paid with a gift card.
In this scheme, a supposed seller gets you to pay for an item or service with a prepaid gift card by asking you to send them the card’s number and PIN. They then steal the funds—and, of course, you never receive what you purchased. Some scammers may also pretend to be a friend or distant family member in need of money for a specific store.
Gift cards are untraceable, and once a scammer has its details, there’s no way to recover your funds. Gift cards don’t have the same buyer protections as other payment options, making them especially profitable for scammers.
The FTC is clear: “No real business or government agency will ever insist you pay them with a gift card.” If you’re being asked to pay for something by putting money on a gift card, it’s a scam. They’re for gifts, not payments.
Holiday travel scams
Time off work and colder weather make the holidays an ideal time for a get away, and scammers know it. Despite the pandemic, over forty percent of American adults plan to travel during the festive season.
Phishing emails with travel offers leading to spoofed booking sites multiply during the holidays. If the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is, and the only thing going on a journey will be your personal information. Book your trip through a reputable site.
Signs of holiday scams to watch out for
Regardless of the scam, there are a few telltale signs you’re being targeted. Be careful with how you proceed if you spot the following clues:
- Spelling mistakes. Legitimate businesses and organizations have the time and resources to produce high-quality, professional content; scammers, whose success depends on how many phishing messages they send, often don’t.
- Missing contact information. Real businesses and organizations make themselves easy to reach and available to their customers and patrons. Shopping or travel sites without a phone number or a street address are a red flag.
- Too-good-to-be-true deals. The holidays bring some of the best deals of the year, but not all of them are legitimate. Unbelievable prices are one way scammers rush you into making decisions.
- Phishing bait. Phishing is more likely to succeed when you act impulsively. Look for these common signs:
- Urgent calls to action
- Suspicious links and attachments
- Mismatched email domains
- First time or infrequent senders
- Poor spelling or grammar
- Generic greetings
What you can do to avoid scams
The hustle and bustle of the holidays might have you in a scurry, but it’s best to slow down online. If you’re careful, you can steer clear of holiday scams. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Don’t click on suspicious links. If you run into a suspicious looking link or attachment—in your inbox, on a website, or on social media—pause. Phishing scams succeed when you click on links and give up personal information. Engaging with a malicious URL can lead you to download malware. If something seems questionable, don’t click, instead:
- Check if the URL is safe. Hover over the link to display its destination address. It should match the organization’s official web address. (Don’t assume a link is safe just because it’s encrypted, i.e starts with ‘https’.) On a mobile device, tap and hold the link, and a pop-up window with a preview should appear.
- Look for typos. Read the message for subtle mistakes and poor grammar—phishing messages are often translated—and look out for abbreviations, strange characters, and other typos in the link. Scammers put up websites meant to look like those of major retailers or charities, but with slightly different URLs. For instance, it may end in ‘.co’ instead of ‘.com’, or may contain ‘rn’ where there’s usually ‘m’.
- Avoid SMS links. Smishing is phishing through text messaging, and it’s common during the holidays. Using misleading texts, often disguised as account notices or prize notifications, scammers deceive you into tapping links. If you get a text from an unknown number with a link to a deal, don’t tap.
- Pay by credit card. Credit cards offer more consumer protection than other payment methods, meaning you can report and dispute fraud with your provider to limit the damage. (Debit cards offer some of the same protections, but they aren’t as strong or as universal.) Don’t make purchases or donations on websites asking for payment by gift card, and never wire money directly to a seller.
- Do your research. If you’re dealing with a business for the first time, look up reviews and ratings before moving forward with a payment. Avoid sellers with poor feedback. If you’re still unsure, search them up with terms like ‘scam’ or ‘complaints,’ or look them up using resources like the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or the FTC’s Scam Alerts, which keep track of scams.
- Check your charity. Don’t let scams deter you from helping others this season. To verify the authenticity of a charity, look it up on a reputable resource like Charity Navigator or BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which rate charities by accountability and transparency. Try not to donate to a charity you didn’t initiate contact with, and never pay by gift card, wire transfer, or cryptocurrency.
- Be wary of good deals. If the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Forking up personal information or picking up malware is never worth the discount. Be especially wary of deals advertised in social media posts or unfamiliar websites.
- Buy directly from the source. If possible, purchase directly from the issuing business, especially when buying gift cards online. Avoid sellers posing as authorized dealers or factory representatives. Make sure whoever you’re dealing with is accountable and easy to reach. Look for privacy policies and return and refund policies, and make sure they’re clear.
- Browse on a secure network. Don’t make purchases or donations on public Wi-Fi networks. They aren’t always secure. If possible, use a VPN.
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