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Have Happy — not Scammy — Holidays

AARP survey shows that it pays to watch out for seasonal grinches

Worried woman thinking of something while spending Christmas alone at home.

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To keep your holidays merry, bright and safe, don’t let a crook lighten your wallet or steal your cheer. Modern-day grinches abound, a new survey for AARP suggests. The national poll of 1,027 adults found that 3 in 4 men and women either had been targeted or victimized by at least one form of fraud, with requests from a dubious charity for a donation (reported by 38 percent of respondents) leading the list.

The next common frauds resulted from buying a product through an online ad (35 percent of respondents), a fake notification about a shipment issue (34 percent), a stolen package (25 percent), a gift card with no value (21 percent) and a con while applying for a seasonal job (8 percent).

The findings, along with an eight-question quiz about fraud and scams, are featured in a new report, "Holiday Scams: The Gift That Keeps on Taking," released Nov. 18. Fewer than 1 in 5 adults answered six or more questions correctly.

The respondents, who spoke by phone, were American adults who said they use the internet (at least occasionally) and typically shop for gifts, food or decorations for a holiday, observance or event from November through January.

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The report urges consumers to do the following:

1. Check out charities before giving. Fifty-three percent of adults said they don’t always do such vetting, which is easy using sites such as Charity Navigator, CharityWatch and the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. You can also search online using a charity’s name plus terms such as “scam” and “complaints.”

2. Be careful before clicking. Thirty-eight percent said they had made a purchase in the past 12 months by clicking on an ad on social media. The potential problems: These ads can lead to a fake site that is intended to resemble a legitimate business or that downloads malicious software on your device.

3. Protect packages from porch pirates. One in 4 adults said they had had a package stolen from outside their front door, so don’t leave unattended packages there. In a related vein, 34 percent said they had received a fake notification from the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx or UPS about a “shipment issue.” These notices are bids to steal your personal information.

4. Buy gift cards online and purchase them directly from the issuer, such as a retailer or restaurant. There’s no question that the cards are popular — 2 in 3 respondents said they plan to buy them for the holidays — but crooks tamper with gift cards on store racks.

Among the 21 percent who reported gift cards with zero balances, 11 percent had received one, 5 percent had given one, and another 5 percent had both given and received a worthless card.

5. Consider safe ways to pay

  • More than two-thirds of respondents (69 percent) plan to use debit cards during the holiday season even though anti-fraud protections aren’t as robust as those for credit cards.

  • Among respondents who use peer-to-peer (P2P) payment platforms, nearly half (45 percent) plan to pay this way despite the fact that fraud losses arising from using an app such as Venmo, Zelle or Cash App are “not typically recoverable.” That’s why P2P apps are intended to send money only to people whom you know and trust. Still, more than half (51 percent) of respondents who had made a P2P payment in the past said they had sent money to a person whom they did not know well or to a seller with whom they had no history.

  • Safer ways to pay are with a credit card or a digital wallet on your smartphone. To use a digital wallet, beforehand you enter your credit card number, but it is encrypted, so the actual number is not shared with a retailer.

6. Stay current by keeping your computer devices' operating systems and antivirus protections up to date.

7. Be wary of online ads touting unbelievable sales because — you guessed it — they probably shouldn’t be trusted.

8. Decline requests for your log-in credentials, even if the ask is supposedly from a customer-support staffer.

So, amid the holiday hustle and bustle, take your time. Stay scam-savvy. Always steer clear of the bad actors who never give — and only take — regardless of the season.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.