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AARP Report Warns of Spike in Scam Attempts During the Holidays

Criminals ramp up their efforts targeting online shoppers, a new survey finds

spinner image woman shopping online during the Christmas season with Christmas decorations behind her
Anchiy / Getty Images

Scams have become a part of our everyday lives, unfortunately: Between the phishing emails and texts pretending to be government officials or online retailers needing your personal information and robocalls warning of money owed, it can be exhausting. And these criminals don’t rest during the season of goodwill. In fact, they seem to ramp up their efforts to perpetrate fraud, according to a new AARP Fraud Watch NetworkTM report.

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Based on an AARP survey of 2,012 U.S. consumers age 18 and older, the report, “Preparing for the Holidays? So Are Criminals: Already Rampant Fraud Expected to Spike,” finds that three-quarters 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) charitiesonline shopping scams and fraudulent communications about shipping problems.

“You’re going to get more emails and texts for legitimate holiday shopping deals this time of year,” says Kathy Stokes, AARP’s Director of Fraud Prevention, Fraud Watch Network. “But you may get just as many that are scams. And these criminals are so good at what they do, it can be hard to tell the difference.”

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Highlights from the survey

  • Twenty-seven percent of respondents have had a package stolen from outside their doors.
  • Thirty-nine percent received a donation request in the past year that seemed fraudulent.
  • More than a third have experienced fraud when trying to buy a product through an online ad.
  • Twenty-nine percent have received a notification from someone saying they are from USPS, FedEx, or UPS about a shipment issue, and it turned out to be fraudulent.
  • Fifteen percent of travelers experienced fraud when booking a trip.
  • One in 4 have given or received a gift card with no balance.

With so many shoppers going online to make their purchases these days, it’s become more important to be vigilant, says Stokes: “Type the company’s website into your browser, rather than click a link in an ad. This way you avoid fake links that could steal login info or load malware [malicious software] onto your device.”

Gift cards are a notorious favorite target for scammers — and only a quarter of people surveyed said they weren’t planning to buy any gift cards this season. “A gift card can easily be manipulated and put back on the rack,” notes Stokes. While the vast majority of cards are likely to be untampered with, she adds: “It seems that the safest way to purchase one is directly from the retailer online. If you can register it, register it, and check the balance right away."

Find more tips on avoiding holiday scams here.

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Test your safe-shopping savvy

Survey participants were asked the following questions. See how you do.

True or false?

  1. Online retailers like Amazon and eBay will request your login information to provide customer support.
  2. Ordering a free trial offer from an online retailer (with a small shipping charge) is a good way of trying out a product before you buy it.
  3. Peer-to-Peer payment apps like Cash App, Zelle or Venmo have the same consumer protections as your credit card.
  4. When searching online for customer support, the first customer service phone number that appears on your search results will connect you with a legitimate person from that company.
  5. Peer-to-Peer payment apps like Cash App, Zelle and Venmo are only intended to be used to transfer money between people you personally know, like family, friends, the babysitter or the lawn service.
  6. It’s safe to pay for a vacation rental found on apps like Airbnb or VRBO outside of the app; for example, sending money with a P2P app instead. 
  7. Ads for merchandise that you see on social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, or other places online are trustworthy.
  8. The safest way to make purchases online is with a credit card.
  9. Regularly updating software on your devices provides protection against fraud.

Answers, with the percent of respondents who answered correctly: 1. False (36); 2. False (42); 3. False (43); 4. False (50); 5. True (54); 6. False (54); 7. False (57); 8. True (64); 9. True (67). For explanations of these answers, please see the report.

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