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FRAUD RESOURCE LIBRARY

Holiday Scams

The holiday season brings the blessings of gift-giving, good cheer and time with family and friends. It also brings plenty of opportunities for cybercrooks to spoil your celebrations. A few scams are specific to the holidays, but most are variations on everyday frauds, ramped up to match seasonal spikes in spending and web traffic. With a little preparation and vigilance, you can lessen your chances of being victimized.

Not surprisingly, holiday scams often center on shopping, especially online. Sixty percent of consumers take to the internet to buy holiday gifts, according to a Deloitte survey. As real retailers roll out their seasonal deals, cybersecurity company ZeroFOX says, scammers seek to snare bargain-hunting shoppers with bogus websites and, increasingly, social media campaigns that impersonate major brands, especially in fashion, tech and sporting goods.

These “spoofing” sites and fake posts entice you to spend money for products you’ll never receive. Further, many are vehicles for harvesting credit card numbers and other personal data that fraudsters use to commit identity theft or sell on the dark web. Scammers may distribute malware-loaded links or attachments via supposed coupon offers or “order confirmation” emails asking you to verify an order you never placed. Frauds involving gift cards — the No. 1 item on holiday wish lists, according to National Retail Federation research — also shift into high gear during the holidays.

Other hallmarks of the season provide grist for grifters:

  • Charity scams: Thirty percent of giving to nonprofits is done from #GivingTuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) through New Year’s Eve, fundraising software company Network for Good reports. That means more sham charities exploiting Americans’ goodwill via fake websites and pushy telemarketers.
  • Delivery scams: As holiday packages crisscross the country, scammers send out phishing emails disguised as UPS, FedEx or U.S. Postal Service notifications of incoming or missed deliveries. Links lead to phony sign-in pages asking for personal information, or to sites infested with malware.
  • Travel scams: Going home for the holidays carries risks other than family feuding. Spoof booking sites and email offers proliferate, with travel deals that look too good to be true and probably are.
  • Letter from Santa scams: A custom letter from the jolly old elf makes a holiday treat for the little ones on your list, and many legitimate businesses offer them. But so do many scammers looking to scavenge personal information about you or, worse, your kids or grandkids, who may not learn until many years later that their identity was stolen and their credit compromised.

Warning Signs

  • Huge discounts on hot gift items, especially when touted on social media posts or unfamiliar websites.
  • Spelling errors or shoddy grammar on a shopping website or in an email.
  • A shopping or travel site does not list a phone number or street address for the business and offers only an email address or a fill-in contact form.
  • A site does not have a privacy policy.
  • An unsolicited email asks you to click on a link or download an app to access a deal or arrange a delivery.

Do's

  • Do mouse over links in emails and social media ads to display the true destination URL, and click through only if you’re certain it’s a legitimate site.
  • Do pay by credit card. That way you can dispute charges and limit the damage if it turns out you were scammed.
  • Do research unfamiliar retail, travel and charity sites online. Search for their names with terms like “scam,” “complaints” or “reviews,” and look them up on evaluation and information sites like those listed below under "More Resources."
  • Do look for return and refund policies when shopping on an unfamiliar or suspicious site, and make sure they are clear.
  • Do carefully examine gift cards at the point of purchase. Signs of tampering could mean a thief has accessed the card’s PIN code and can drain its value as soon as someone buys and loads it.

Don'ts

  • Don’t conduct financial transactions on a site unless the URL begins with “https://” or there’s a padlock or unbroken key icon in the address bar or at the bottom of the browser window. These indicate a secure connection.
  • Don’t buy anything online while using a public Wi-Fi network. It might not be secure.
  • Don’t make a purchase or donation if a website or caller seeks payment by wire transfer, gift card or prepaid card. These are like forking over cash.

AARP Fraud Watch Network

Fight back against frauds and scams! Call our free Fraud Watch helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling. You can also sign up for Watchdog Alerts and check out our scam-tracking map.

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Published: Dec. 3, 2018

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