Many of us look forward to the holiday season all year long. It’s a time to get together with family, reconnect with friends, and spend some time with the most important people in our lives. Of course, it’s also time to hit the mall and online stores to find the perfect gifts for your loved ones and the best deals of the season.
Unfortunately, con-artists, fraudsters, and other criminals also look forward to the holiday season for entirely less wholesome reasons. The hustle and bustle of the holiday rush is the perfect time to prey on unsuspecting consumers and make off with some easy money.
Don’t let one of these Grinches ruin your holidays! Be aware of the most common scams going around this year and how best to avoid them.
Deals that are a little too good to be true
The holiday season is the time of year when businesses break out the big guns to try and win your patronage, so we’re all used to sales and promotions. But, if a deal seems too good to be true, you need to take a closer look before punching in your credit card numbers.
A very popular scam tactic this time of year is for fraudsters to set up fly-by-night online retailers with unbelievable prices on some of the most popular gifts on the market. Alternatively, instead of making up a “new” business, they’ll send out email flyers and offers in the guise of a legitimate business that will take you to a fake site done up to look like the real thing. Needless to say, you’re never going to see the product they promised after they have your money.
Always know who you’re buying from. If you don’t recognize the business, do a quick Google search to see how long they’ve been around and what their reputation is like. If you receive a promotion that seems just too good to be true (a huge discount on a product that typically never goes on sale, or an overly extravagant “free” gift that comes with purchase) from a retailer you recognize, again, pop the details of the deal into a search engine. If it is a legitimate promotion, you’ll find related info on it (or warnings about a scam if it isn’t!) Another option is to go the the retailer’s site (not using any links provided in the email) and see if you can find the same deal.
Never fall for pressure techniques. These scams rely on both your excitement to grab a great bargain as well as the pressure to act fast. These “deals” are typically presented as limited time offers, only available on a certain day or in limited supply to discourage you from thinking clearly and get that finger clicking. Don’t be in such a rush to secure a deal that you don’t do your homework first.
As more people become aware of typical holiday scams, some clever fraudsters have found a way to turn that well-founded paranoia against consumers.
One day during the holidays, you might get a scary text from your bank or credit card providers saying your account has been compromised! For the purpose of protecting your savings account or credit rating, and ensuring that their fraud protection department can move ahead with a refund, it is very important that you go to a provided link and “confirm” your identity and account info.
Of course, this isn’t the bank texting you. While the site the link leads to might look official, it’s merely a well made forgery of your institution’s actual site. This is a con that attempts to panic you into providing an imposter the keys to your accounts so they can rob you for real.
Always, ALWAYS remember – your bank or credit card company will never contact you asking for your PIN number, password, or any other secure account details. If you’re unsure if a fraud alert is legitimate or not, call your local branch to confirm the details or your institution’s official 1-800 help number (taken from a bill, previous documentation, or their official homepage, not a provided number or link) and ask them about it directly.
A failure to deliver
Another favored holiday email scam is the false delivery failure message. This scam relies on more people than usual taking advantage of online retailers during the holiday season and the typical shipping issues that crop up during a busy shopping season.
While looking like an official (if vague) “Failure to Deliver” notice, the email will typically include an attachment for you to open. It will say the attachment contains shipping details, recovery info, or a refund form to fill out, but what it will really contain is malware and viruses. This can introduce all sorts of nastiness to your computer, including the possibility of ransomware
(where hackers will essentially lock you out of your own computer and extort you to regain access).
This scam relies on people being so flustered by the idea that their gifts won’t arrive on time that they click on something without thinking. Again, remaining calm is your best defense! If you get a shady shipping error notice, look it over carefully. What does it say was shipped and from where? Did you buy anything that matches that description lately? Slow down and think it through before getting upset.
Of course, never open any attachments. A legitimate shipping notice will include all the relevant info in the body of the email and never have any extra attachments or documentation you need to download separately. You should be careful of attachments and dubious files all year round, but extra cautious during the holidays when online fraud is at its peak.
“What, I have a refund for a tablet waiting for me? But I never bought any tablet… Wow, free money during the holidays, I’m so lucky!”
Yup, the old fake refund scam is one that relies on people being too excited to think straight. This scam has many variations – email, letters, phone calls – but the basic gist is the same. You have a “refund” available to you and all you need to do to claim it is provide them with some confirmation info about your account and identity (which they will then immediately use to defraud you).
While there is always the classic “here is a refund for something you never bought” version of the con, more clever fraudsters try and frame their refunds as the result of a service error. While many of us are skeptical enough to not fall for it when someone offers a refund for a tablet or laptop we never bought, the idea of your phone company making a mistake in their last billing cycle is a lot easier to believe. Services that have a reputation for making errors and are often paid through monthly automatic deposits are the perfect cover for a fraudster.
Again, don’t jump at the mention of free money (no matter how tempting or appealing the idea might be during a tight holiday season). Be suspicious, don’t offer any information, and use your head. Even if your phone company or bank legitimately made an error, they would compensate for the issue with a future billing adjustment instead of asking you for account info so they could send you a cheque or electronic transfer.
Sorry, there’s just no such thing as free money, not even during the holiday season.
This is the scam that personally irks me the most. During the holiday season, many of us are moved to do what we can for others and donate to worthy causes and charities in the hopes of spreading some holiday joy and mercy. When a scammer sets up a fake charity to take advantage of that noble impulse, they not only rob the donor, but the needy people who could have truly used that generosity.
Don’t let the possibility of false charities prevent you from giving this holiday season. But, be extra vigilant when you do so. Always research an organization before giving and make sure they have a good reputation and track record. Legitimate charities will always have official means of contact and larger ones should have transparent financial information you can examine. Be careful of look-alikes ripping off the name or logo of a well-known charity.
Social media has added a new spin to this scam as well. Crowdfunding services like GoFundMe allow families in need to set up personal donation drives and it isn’t uncommon to see a family afflicted with a medical condition, recent disaster, or sudden vet bill asking for a little extra help around the holidays. These efforts are typically shared through social media like Facebook and Twitter and can be a great way to directly help people in need. Unfortunately, scammers will sometimes fabricate a story and try to weasel money out of well-meaning people.
Always do your research before donating. Search the names of anyone involved and see if the story matches up with what you can find. If they have a social media profile, look at when it was established and what kind of posting history they have (something made a week ago with nothing but links to a fundraiser is a bad sign). A quick Google “reverse image search” can help you find out if the image used in the crowdfunding profile was taken from some other source online.
It’s a little extra work but it’s worth it to make sure donations get to the people who really need them.
Have a happy and safe holiday season!
Scams are an unfortunate part of the modern holiday experience, but they don’t have to ruin your holidays! The fundamental defense to all of these scams is staying calm, not falling for pressure techniques, and verifying the details before ever providing any information or money. Keep your cool like Frosty this holiday season, and you shouldn’t have any problems!