Online scammers are seizing on holiday shoppers being in a seasonal frenzy. While looking for the perfect gift for the lowest price, consumers sometimes forget to check that they're dealing with legitimate businesses and secure websites. To help you avoid losing money or personal information, watch for these popular 12 scams of Christmas.
#1 FAKE LETTERS FROM SANTA
Many legitimate businesses offer personalized letters from Santa, but some copycat scammers are only looking to glean personal information from unsuspecting parents.
- Read the fine print. Check that you're not signing-up for a service you don't want
- Verify the legitimacy of the company by checking the Better Business Bureau's website
- Make the website is secure (look for the lock in the URL) before sharing personal information or your credit card number
#2 CHARITY AND CROWDFUNDING SCAMS
It's the season of giving, but be careful your donation doesn't go to a Grinch. Don't let props or seasonal costumes fool you, some people will go out of their way to deceive you.
- Try to verify the collector is who they say they are
- If you're unsure, don't give. Instead go home and make a direct contribution to the charity online.
- Be careful of crowdfunding campaigns. Give to ones where you know the person personally, or you know somebody who can vouch for it
- Research charitable organizations on sites like Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and the Maryland Secretary of State's charity site
#3 FAKE COUPONS
Coupons are great money-saving tools, as long as they're real. Several fake coupons have gone viral on social media including a $150 free Kohl's coupon and $200 off at Kroger. The retailers have confirmed the coupons are not legitimate.
"Yah, they're not getting any money from you directly, but they've gotten your information, they've gotten access to your profile and then they're able to sell your stuff along with the thousands of others who shared the same thing to content providers, to third-parties, to people who want that information and can use it to tailor ads, sell you products, it's a whole ecosystem of stealing your stuff," said Loyola University Maryland associate accounting professor JP Krahel.
#4 FAKE TICKETS
Tickets to a concert, game, or play are a great gift idea, but make sure you're paying for the real thing and not just a piece of paper. Hard tickets will be perforated, and UPC, product codes, and section, row, and seat should all be unique. Your best bet is to buy tickets directly from the venue's official site. If you're trying to get seats to a sold out show and decide to buy from an online marketplace:
- Research the seller
- The site's consumer protection policy
- And beware of tickets printed from a PDF, there could be multiple copies out there
#5 PUPPY SCAMS
It's a little kid's dream waking up to a new puppy on Christmas morning. Parents hoping to make this a reality are finding that the puppies they buy online are really a ploy to steal thousands of dollars. According to the Better Business Bureau, puppy scams using Maryland addresses are especially prevalent. They suck you in with a picture of a cute puppy, request anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands then demand more money later on saying the puppy is stuck at the airport or requires additional shipping fees. To avoid this:
- First, adopt a pet from a rescue shelter
- Always meet the pet in-person
- Do an image search online to see if the photo is on multiple sites
- Or go to a well-known breeder in your community or find one through the American Kennel Club breeder referral search
- Pay with a method that has fraud protection
#6 LOOK-ALIKE SITES & PHISHING EMAILS
Our emails are flooded with promotional deals. Before clicking the link to learn more, make sure it's for a real business. These emails are unsolicited and are advertisting deals, gifts, sales, or are receipts for stuff you didn't purchase. These emails make look legitimate, but could lead to a look-alike site designed to trick you into entering private information or even give scammers an opportunity to install malware on your computer.
If you get one of these emails:
- Check out the sender's address to make sure it's from a real business
- Look for misspellings throughout the email
- Hover over links without clicking to see where they send you
- And only enter sensitive information on secure sites beginning with “https”
#7 UNUSUAL FORMS OF PAYMENTS
You find the perfect gift at a great price and go to checkout, but the seller is asking for Western Union, Moneygram, or maybe a gift card. Do you pass on the deal or go ahead with the transaction? Experts say move on.
"Once I wire money out, it's gone. But if I pay with a credit card for instance, which any reputable business is going to take, then I have protections as well as the business has protections," said Krahel.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, gift cards are the number one payment method impostors demand. As soon as you send the person the card number, they empty the balance and you lose that money.
#8 TEMPORARY JOB SCAMS
The holidays are a great time to find temporary employment, but online scammers are more interested in personal information than your work experience. It's not uncommon for businesses to need an extra hand around this time, just be sure you're sending your paperwork to a legitimate company. Scammers are known to say you're the perfect candidate then request sensitive information like your social security number for a fake background search.
- Apply for jobs in-person or directly through the company's website
- Never accept a job that sends you money up-front to complete a task or one that requires you to pay for supplies or equipment
- And don't give away personal information on the phone or online before meeting for an interview
#9 PAYMENT METHODS WITH FRAUD PROTECTION
Debit cards keep us from overspending but they're not as secure. For the 9th scam of Christmas, we're taking a look at fraud protection. Credit cards offer the best protection against potential fraud. You'll have to pay interest on your purchases, but you're also more likely to reimbursed if you're the victim of the scam.
"Debit card, it draws straight out from your bank account, so there's no real intermediary, it's just gone, as if I paid $50 out of my own wallet, I can't really get that back. With a credit card though, remember there's a delay, I'm not paying right away, the credit card company's paying on my behalf and they've gotten, honestly, a lot more muscle to dispute charges, to refuse payment then little ol' me does," Krahel said.
Make sure you're on a secure website before putting in any credit card of debit information. Never wire money or pay in gift cards. And don't wait. For most credit card disputes the timeframe is 120 days.
#10 FAKE SHIPPING NOTIFICATIONS
A shipping email could actually be a phishing scam. These false notification emails have the same look, names, and logos of legitimate businesses but are really trying to trick you into opening the email. This allows thieves to gain access to personal information and passwords.
Check that it's not a fake:
- By looking at the sender's address
- Look up tracking information through the company's website
- Never pay money to receive your package, you already paid when you made the purchase
#11 SCAM HOLIDAY E-CARDS
Online Christmas greetings may contain a lot more than a message of cheer. Scam holiday e-cards could contain malware that steals information from your computer such as banking, credit card, personal information and passwords.
Before opening the e-card:
- Check in with the sender. If you don't recognize the sender's name that's a red flag.
- Never open attachments that end in .exe -- that executes a command and could download a virus on your computer
#12 FREE GIFT CARDS
Free stuff usually gets our attention, but steer clear of free gift card advertisements. These phishing emails and pop-up ads are trying to collect personal information or even steal money from you by getting you to buy a gift card in exchange for one with a higher value.
"We want those, we're looking to save money, we're looking to expand our gift-giving ability. We think these are easy ways to get this but in essence, whether it's a free trial or survey, what you're doing is you're going to get into a system and end up giving personal identifying information," said Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Greater Maryland.
If it's an ad for a free gift card from a major retailer, check the sender's address. See if the message is personalized. And if you happen to click on one of these ads, close out of the program, clear your history and turn on your ad blocker.