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​5 Ways Cyberthieves Steal From Holiday Shoppers — And How to Stop Them​

Losses for purchases that never arrive could surpass 2020’s $53 million, FBI warns

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Searching online for a bargain or a hard-to-find holiday gift? Hordes of shoppers are and, as the FBI tells it, cybercriminals eager to rip them off are working harder than Santa’s elves in December.

During the 2020 holiday season, more than $53 million in losses arose from complaints about items that were ordered but not delivered, figures at the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center,, show.

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That’s a king’s ransom in Fitbits, flannel pajamas, furry slippers and fruitcakes.

The 2020 holiday loss figure stemmed from more than 17,000 reports — an average of more than 340 from each state — and could grow this year because of fears of merchandise shortages and the pandemic, the bureau warned in a recent alert.

Bah humbug to the bad actors

Here are five techniques criminals use to entice victims:

1. E-mails advertising hot or hard-to-find items such as event tickets or gaming systems.

2. Untrustworthy websites and ads promoting unrealistic discounts and bargains.

3. Social media posts offering vouchers, gift cards, freebies and contests. These posts often appear to have been shared by a friend.

4. Social media ads for nonexistent or counterfeit items.

5. Online surveys designed to steal personal information.

Unsuspecting consumers can lose more than money if they give away personal information and debit or credit card details. In such cases their identities may be compromised and fraudulent charges show up on their accounts.

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Staying safe while shopping

Here are more than a dozen tips from the FBI on staying safe as you shop:

  • Verify websites before you buy. Purchase items only from official, encryption-using websites. Web addresses should begin with https:// and include a locked padlock icon.

  • Be wary of online retailers who use a free email service instead of a company email address. (Free emails end in or, for example.)

  • Do not judge a company by its website. Flashy sites can be set up and taken down quickly.

  • Pay for items using a credit card dedicated for use for online purchases. Check card statements frequently. For online accounts, never save payment information on a website.

  • Be wary of sellers who accept only wire transfers, virtual currency, gift cards or cash, as these are almost impossible to recover.

  • Never make an online purchase using public Wi-Fi. 

  •  Verify a seller’s legitimacy before you make a purchase by, for example, looking at consumer reviews and checking with the Better Business Bureau. (You also may search the seller’s name with terms such as “complaint.”)

  • Beware of sellers posting under one name but requesting funds to be sent to another person. Another red flag is a seller who claims to be in this country but requests funds be sent to another country.

  • Only purchase gift cards directly from a trusted merchant. 

  • If you receive an unsolicited email, do not click on links or provide personal or financial information. 

  • Make sure the antivirus/malware software is up to date on your computer devices. Block pop-up windows.

  • Use safe passwords or pass phrases — and never use an identical password on multiple accounts.

  • If a deal sounds too good to be true, chances are it is a scam. 

Lastly, here’s what the FBI urges if you are victim of an internet scam:

  • Report to the bureau at as quickly as possible. 

  • Report the activity to the online payment service used in the financial transaction. 

  • Contact your financial institution immediately to stop or reverse the transaction. And ask your financial institution to contact the corresponding financial institution where the fraudulent or suspicious transfer was sent. 
Beware Online Shopping Scams

Is a pet on your holiday wish list?

The holidays are a popular time to welcome Fido or Fluffy into your family.

​But pet scams abound, the FBI warns, so if shopping online for a four-legged friend, consider first meeting the animal and its owner through a video.

The bureau says it's important to know that:

  • Criminals use legitimate website photos to promise animals they do not own to multiple buyers.

  • The red flags of pet scams include additional shipping/carrier fees, taxes and vaccination costs.

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.

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