For many Americans, the holiday season is the most generous time of the year, inspiring people to give gifts and to donate to charities.
But not everyone is in the holiday giving spirit. Peak shopping season is also peak scamming season, so we’ve put together five of the most common holiday-related scams for you to be aware of while you’re spreading holiday cheer.
WHAT WE FOUND
VERIFY reviewed holiday scam warnings from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the AARP to create this list of the five most common scams.
It’s possible to fall victim to a variation of each of these scams year-round, but their snares are more effective during this time of year when many people are shopping more than usual.
Fake shipping notifications
A fake shipping notification is exactly what it sounds like: A notification sent via text or email with information about a delivery that isn’t real. It’s likely you’ve received these kinds of messages before; the AARP says they accounted for more than 1 in 4 spam texts in 2021.
The BBB says this kind of scam is “particularly prevalent” during the holiday season. The AARP explains that scammers are hoping you’ve done most of your Christmas shopping online and can’t keep track of all of your purchases, or that you’ll just assume the package is a gift from someone close to you.
This scam often looks like an email or text message from a legitimate package carrier, like the United States Postal Service (USPS), FedEx or UPS. The message may have what it claims is a tracking link, it might tell you that you need to confirm your order before it will be delivered or it could tell you that you need to reschedule your delivery because an unsuccessful delivery attempt was made.
If the message has a link, it’s likely a phishing link that wants you to enter your personal and financial information, or it has malware that the scammer can use to extract that information on their own.
The simplest way you can avoid falling victim to this scam is by keeping track of your orders. Be wary of any unexpected deliveries or messages about them.
Text messages about missed deliveries should raise red flags unless you’ve already opted into them. If you receive an unsolicited notification via text or email, don’t click on links attached to the message. Instead, go to the company’s official website and find its tracking tool or customer service options there.
A more low-tech version of this scam comes in the form of a fake missed delivery slip left on your front door. These slips include a phone number for the victim to call, which the scammers will use to get your personal information.
Legitimate package carriers also usually leave a slip on your door to notify you of a missed delivery. To make sure that the slip you see on your door isn’t a scam, you should read the information and instructions on it carefully to make sure it’s for a real delivery. If there is anything suspicious about the slip, use the customer service number the company has posted online rather than the one on the slip.
Online shopping scams
The reason fake delivery notifications work over the holidays is because people are doing a lot of online shopping. Scammers will try to trick people with bogus websites made to look like real ones, social media ads for counterfeit or non-existent products and links to “store pages” that will actually download malware onto your device, the AARP and BBB say.
With scammers deploying so many different strategies to ruin your holiday shopping experience, there’s a number of different red flags you should be aware of, and strategies you can use to avoid becoming a victim.
One of the most common ways scammers try to trick online holiday shoppers is through fake websites masquerading as real stores.
“Some faux e-stores are invented from whole cloth, but many mimic trusted retailers, with familiar logos and slogans and a URL that’s easily mistaken for the real thing,” the AARP says. “They offer popular items at a fraction of the usual cost and promise perks such as free shipping and overnight delivery, exploiting the premium online shoppers put on price and speed.”
These websites, the BBB says, can be created to trick people into downloading malware, making purchases for counterfeit or non-existent products, or sharing private information.
You should double-check the URL of whatever store page you’re shopping from to make sure it lines up with the company’s real URL, which you can confirm with a Google search. If the logo looks a little off or there are typos on the webpages, those are signs that the site might not be the company’s real website.
Sometimes, scammers try to use enormous sales and bargains to lure you to a knockoff website. These kinds of websites often have the same goals, and are likely to send you counterfeit products or nothing at all.
Do a quick search online to research the company you’re buying from if you’re unfamiliar with it, the BBB says. Check for valid contact information, and search for the business name on Google followed by “complaints,” “reviews” or “scam.”
Additionally, the FTC recommends paying by credit card for online purchases because most credit cards offer extra protection over debit cards. And if unauthorized charges appear on your credit card statement, you can dispute them.
Gift card scams
An AARP survey found three-quarters of its respondents plan to buy at least one gift card this holiday season. A quarter of respondents in that same survey received a gift card with no funds on it in the past, showing that gift cards are just as popular for scammers.
Sometimes, thieves will remove gift cards from the in-store display rack and record the numbers on the cards so they can activate them at home without buying them, leaving whoever buys the card with a worthless gift card, the BBB says. Other times, scammers will set up websites to “check the balance” on gift cards, only to use it as a front to steal the information they need to take the money from the card.
Then, there are other scammers who don’t steal money from gift cards, but instead use gift cards as a way to get access to personal information These scammers use fraudulent websites that claim to sell gift cards for popular retailers at steeply discounted prices, only to harvest information like your credit card number.
What can you do to protect yourself? First, only buy a gift card from a reputable retailer, preferably directly from the company the card is for. If you buy it in person, look over the card before making your purchase. Check to see whether the PIN is exposed, and inspect the packaging for any tears, wrinkles or other indications of tampering. If anything looks suspicious, pick out a different card and hand over the compromised card to the retailer’s customer service desk.
Check to see if you can register your card with the retailer; it can help recover stolen funds.
Finally, avoid websites not associated with the retailer that offer to check the balance of your gift cards. It’s always safer to get the balance from the retailer, if that option is available.
Holiday job scams
Retailers and shipping services alike often hire additional part-time workers during the holidays, and many people see these jobs as an opportunity to earn extra money during an expensive time of year. But scammers know this, the FTC and BBB warn, and will look to take advantage of it.
No legitimate job will make prospective employees pay to get a job, so if that’s a prerequisite, stay away. It’s a scam.
You should also be suspicious of jobs that are offered without an interview, and jobs that claim to pay incredibly high wages for simple tasks. These jobs sound too good to be true because they likely are.
Protect yourself while applying for a job by never giving away your credit card, bank account or Social Security number when you first make contact. Additionally, don’t do any work for a company before it actually hires you. The BBB says a legitimate company will not ask you to complete complex projects before making you a job offer.
And during the job search, you can use Google search similarly to how you would check if a retailer is legit: by searching the name of the company plus the words “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
Scammers also use the holidays to take advantage of people feeling generous during the season of giving.
The FTC, BBB and AARP say the very first thing you should do before donating to an unfamiliar charity is to research it online. The BBB monitors and evaluates charities through its Wise Giving Alliance, and other charity watchdogs such as American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch, Charity Navigator and GuideStar perform similar roles.
These watchdog websites vet charities to make sure they’re actually using donations in the way the charities say they do. You can have more confidence in a charity if it’s listed and highly rated by one of the watchdogs.
Never let yourself be pressured into making a quick decision on a donation — scammers of all types like to create a false sense of urgency. Before making a contribution, carefully check the charity’s name and logo. Many fake charities mimic the names and logos of well-known charities to try to trick people.
Don’t make a donation using a gift card, wire transfer or cryptocurrency because those kinds of payments are difficult to track and recover, making them favorites of scammers.
You should also be cautious of crowdfunding campaigns, such as those on popular fundraising websites. Many crowdfunding campaigns are legitimate, but there are also plenty of fake campaigns out there. Do your research ahead of time, including a check for any possible money-back guarantees, since fundraising websites aren't obligated to return your money if you're defrauded.
Keep in mind that crowdfunding campaigns don’t have to be registered charities. GoFundMe says donations to personal GoFundMe fundraisers are generally considered personal gifts and aren’t tax deductible.
If you fall victim to a scam, report it to the FTC at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov, and to the BBB at https://www.bbb.org/scamtracker. The FTC will walk you through your next steps depending on the kind of scam after you’ve filed your report. The FTC also gives advice under the “Getting my money back” section of its scam report FAQ page.
Report a scam as soon as you’re aware of it. The sooner you report it, the more likely you are to get your money back, the FTC says.