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Holiday Scams

En español | Following 2020's socially distant celebrations, the holidays are returning to some semblance of normalcy this year, with families gathering again and stores expecting actual crowds. But one end-of-year staple never changed: Sadly, ‘tis the season for scams, as cybercrooks cook up schemes to exploit our holiday habits.

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. Not surprisingly, they often center on shopping, especially online. Two-thirds of consumers expect to buy gifts mostly online this season, according to research company Ipsos' 2021 holiday survey, and nearly 3 in 5 are doing so more than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As real retailers roll out their seasonal deals, scammers seek to snare bargain-hunting shoppers with bogus websites and social media campaigns that impersonate major brands. 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. Frauds involving gift cards — which nearly two-thirds of shoppers buy during the holidays, according to a November 2021 AARP survey — also shift into high gear during the holidays.

Other hallmarks of the season provide grist for grifters:

  • Charity scams: One-third of all charitable giving is done in December, fundraising software company Network for Good reports. That means more sham charities exploiting Americans’ goodwill via fake websites and pushy telemarketers. This is the most common holiday con, the AARP poll found, with 38 percent of respondents saying they've received a dubious donation request.
  • 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. A third of those surveyed by AARP said they've experienced a delivery scam.
  • Travel scams: Despite the pandemic, 46 percent of U.S. adults plan to travel during the holidays in 2021, a SurveyMonkey poll found. 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 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 buy gifts cards online, directly from the issuing business. If you must buy cards at a store, carefully examine them for signs of tampering, which 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’t assume a website is safe because it shows signs of encryption, like a padlock icon or “https://” in front of the URL. Many scam sites now use this technology, knowing that fraud-savvy consumers look for it, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, a global antifraud coalition.
  • Don’t make a purchase, donate to a charity or conduct other financial business 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.

More Resources

Updated November 19, 2021

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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