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Holiday Scams

The festive season means fun with friends and family, goodwill and giving. Sadly, it's also a prime time for cybercrooks to cook up nefarious schemes.

About 80 percent of U.S. consumers have experienced or been targeted by at least one form of fraud that can be tied to the holidays, including requests from (often fake) charities, online shopping scams and fraudulent communications about shipping problems, according to a 2023 AARP Fraud Watch Network™ report, “Holiday Fraud: Fight Back Against Joy-Stealing Criminals.”

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Most scams are variations on everyday fraud, ramped up to match seasonal spikes in spending and web traffic. Not surprisingly, they often center on shopping, especially online. 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 and ads entice you to spend money for products you’ll never receive.

Many bogus offers are vehicles for harvesting credit card numbers and other personal data that criminals use to commit identity theft or sell on the dark web. Scammers may distribute malware-loaded links or attachments via supposed coupons or “order confirmation” emails. Fraud involving drained gift cards — hugely popular for both giving and receiving — also shift into high gear.

Video: How to Avoid Holiday Scams

Other hallmarks of the season provide grist for grifters:

  • Charity scams: One-third of all charitable giving is done in December, reports fundraising software company Network for Good. 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 and texts disguised as UPS, FedEx or U.S. Postal Service notifications about incoming or missed deliveries. Links lead to phony sign-in pages asking for personal information, or to sites infested with malware.
  • Travel scams: Some criminals send scam emails and texts offering promotions such as free flights to get you to share credit card information or click on links that download malware. Also be wary of the many spoofed websites pretending to be legitimate hotels, airlines and other travel-related businesses.
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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

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 or text. 
  • An unsolicited email that asks you to click on a link or download an app to access a deal or arrange a delivery.
  • Pressure from a charity fundraiser to donate right away.

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Rather than clicking on a link from an email or text to a hot deal, go to your web browser and type in the web address of the company purportedly offering said great deal.
  • Pay by credit card. This way you can dispute charges and limit the damage if the transaction was fraudulent. 
  • Buy gifts cards online directly from the issuing business instead of from a retail rack, where the cards can be tampered with. When receiving a gift card as a present, register it if that’s an option, and use it sooner rather than later.  
  • Avoid conducting any business online (making a purchase, donating, accessing password-protected sites) while using a public Wi-Fi network unless you employ a virtual private network (VPN).
  • Pushy charities could be an indicator that the cause is bogus; legitimate charities will accept your donations on your own timeline.
  • Any time you are prompted to make a purchase or a donation by wire transfer or gift card, it is a scam. 
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More Resources

Charity NavigatorCharityWatch and GuideStar provide a bevy of resources on charitable organizations, including ratings, reviews and financial information.

If you encounter a holiday scam, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (online or at 877-382-4357) and report it to your state’s attorney general and consumer protection office.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.