holiday scams

Well, it’s official. Although it feels like we just got through Halloween, the Christmas season has begun. For most, this is the season of giving, but for criminals, it’s the season of…well…taking.

Here how to avoid falling victim to the top 5 scams this holiday season.

1) Fake Websites

What to watch out for: As the old adage goes, if it’s too good to be true, it is. Scammers launch copycat websites of well-known retailers, listing products at discounted prices, lower than all other stores.

Sometimes these “stores” are included in Google’s price comparison tool, so beware – just because you’re price shopping on Google, doesn’t mean all websites are legit.

How it works: Unsuspecting shoppers often end up on these unscrupulous websites through fake phishing emails, but also through social media offering discounted coupons for the products you know and love. You click the link, land on the website and unknowingly give cybercriminals all your personal and payment information.

How to Avoid this Online Scam

  • Think you found a great deal online? Not so fast. Type “website/domain name + scam” into Google and see what comes up, obviously replacing website/domain name with the website or the domain in question.
  • Type the website URL directly into your browser rather than clicking on a link in an email or social media website.
  • At the top of your browser, look for https:// at the beginning of the website address. This lets you know the connection you’re about to use to send your payment information is secure.
  • Use a credit card instead of debit or set up a PayPal account specifically for online shopping. This gives you a higher level of protection against fraud.

2) Phony Emails Impersonating Stores

What to watch out for: Chances are, you already receive phony emails from big stores like Walmart or Amazon, but during the holiday shopping season, criminals up their game.

How it works: Criminals send phony emails pretending to be popular online or brick and mortar stores like Target, Walmart, Amazon, FedEx or UPS. When you click the link, you could download malware that infects your computer or you be directed to a fake “imposter” website created specifically for capturing your personal and payment information.

How to avoid this online scam: Watch out for emails that address you as “Dear shopper”. These days, nearly all retailers use your actual name, since they have it because you placed an order or created an account with them.

If you’re uncertain whether an email is fake or not, hover over (but don’t click!) the link in the email. If the link is anything other than the retailer’s website, it’s a fake. It should go without saying, never, ever, open an attachment that appears to be sent by stores.

3. Fake Charities

What to watch out for: Charitable donations are at an all-time high this time of year. Unfortunately, scammers will try to profit from this.

How it works: Scammers will ever-so-slightly change the name of an organization and create a website that looks almost identical to the legitimate charity site. The only difference is of course, where to send the donations.

How to avoid this online scam:

  • Pay careful attention to charities that raise funds for local police or fire fighters. If you receive these requests over the phone, hang up, call the charity direct and check their authenticity before donating.
  • Visit to confirm how much of your donation goes to the actual cause and how much goes toward internal operating costs.

4) Fake Delivery-Service Emails

What to watch out for: Beware of emails that appear to come from any delivery service website this time of year.

How it works: During the holiday season, you use shipping services like FedEx and UPS more than any other time of year. Criminals exploit this by sending emails and text messages that deliver malware via attachments or links. Other phishing emails direct you to a fake website.

How to avoid this online scam: Your best bet is to visit the website direct by entering their website into your browser. Avoid clicking on links in emails and never open attachments sent via email.

5) Gift Card Scams

What to watch out for: Gift cards are popular this time of year and thieves know it. Many people aren’t aware of the gift card scam that drains the funds from the card before the recipient has a chance to use it.

How it works: Criminals secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off gift cards on a gift card rack within a grocery or big box store. They check online or call the toll-free number to see if the cards have been purchased or activated. As soon as the card is active, the thieves drain the funds. When the recipient tries to use the card, they’re notified there is a zero balance – and the money is gone.

How to avoid this online scam:

  • Cut the middleman out and go straight to the source and purchase gift cards from the actual store cashier. Ask them to scan the card and ensure it has the correct balance.
  • Examine the card for signs of tampering and an exposed pin.
  • Only purchase online gift cards directly from the retailer’s website. Never buy from an auction site like eBay even if it looks like a great deal – the cards might be stolen or counterfeit.

Be Vigilant, Skeptical, & Smart

Ultimately, it is a good idea to put on your skeptic hat this holiday season. Just because a product has great reviews on Amazon, doesn’t mean all those reviews are legit. In fact, Amazon is suing people who charged $5 for placing positive reviews on Amazon products. Other websites might have fake reviews as well, so evaluate several websites rather than relying on a single source for reviews.

Finally, avoid honeypots – a public place with public Wi-Fi access. The last thing you want to do is do your online shopping or banking in a public place. While these places offer connections, they are not secure and could allow someone to easily access your information.

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