- Online shopping presents risks, which include common scams like phishing, fake website fraud and phony tech support.
- During the holiday season, fraudsters target consumers by attempting to steal credit card numbers, bank account information and other personally identifiable information to commit fraud.
- To help you avoid falling victim to fraud, it is important to protect your personal information, to understand how common scams work and to always exercise caution while shopping online.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a seismic shift in the e-commerce landscape. Consumers around the world preferred to shop online at higher rates than ever before. But that’s not all — other transactions commonly conducted in the real world, such as through charitable giving, have also become increasingly virtual.
This push for virtual services offers convenience for the typical consumer. Unfortunately, it also presents many scam-related dangers. These risks appear with the same predictability as holiday movies, threatening the money and sensitive information of shoppers worldwide.
Listed below are five common holiday scams. We've included tips for how to help keep you and your loved ones safe online.
1. Phishing messages
Phishing has been around for as long as the internet has existed. The premise is simple: A scammer sends a deceptive email designed to trick the victim into providing sensitive information or money.
Phishing can take several forms. Phishing can take place via text message or phone call, though in these cases it’s usually called “smishing” (a play on “phishing” and “SMS”) and “vishing” (a play on “phishing” and “voice”).
Some scams entice the reader to click a link that connects to a fake website. Others request information in exchange for some reward, perhaps a coupon or a “great deal.” These “great deals” often seem too good to be true and may seem to be from popular brands such as UPS, Amazon, Apple or Walmart.
The best defense against phishing is to be educated about these types of scams and exercise caution when dealing with unsolicited texts, phone calls and emails. Never reveal personal information if you didn’t initiate contact.
2. Gift card scams
Gift card scams are named appropriately: A scammer requests payment via gift card for a deceptive reason. Some scammers may use urgency to their advantage by calling you and suggesting that you or a family member is in trouble, further claiming that paying with a gift card will resolve the issue. Alternatively, a scammer may suggest you’ve won a prize and then proceed to instruct you to pay a fee with a gift card to claim the prize.
Regardless of the scam method, never provide payments via gift card without verifying the legitimacy of the request from the true source. Most reputable organizations and companies will never request payment via gift card. Any organization that does this is likely scamming you. Gift cards should only be used as gifts.
In addition, if you are purchasing gift cards as legitimate gifts, be sure to purchase gift cards only from reputable retailers or the store itself. If buying the gift card in a store, be sure that the gift card has not been tampered with. Check the back of the card to make sure the PIN has not been exposed.
3. Fake website and social media fraud
Unlike classic email scams, fake website and social media fraud depends on the victim visiting a fraudulent website or social media page while searching for a product or service.
For example, if you’re searching for an affordable TV, you may perform a Google or social media search for “60-inch TV,” scrolling through the results to find a price within your budget. Watch out! Eventually, you might stumble upon an imitation site or page that looks reliable but was developed to scam consumers out of their money and/or personal information. This scam could also take the shape of a professional-looking site that sells poor-quality products.
Also, be mindful when clicking ads at the top of the search results page. These may lead to low-quality product sites or deceptive sites funded by scammers.
Instead, stick with reputable, high-quality (non-ad) results. If you’ve never shopped with a particular online retailor before, research the site using terms like “scam” and “complaints” before making a purchase with them.
4. Fake charities
Giving to charities close to your heart during the holidays can be rewarding, but it is critical to exercise the same caution you use when donating as when you shop online. Charity scammers are quick to take advantage of those with a giving nature, even resorting to making phone calls or sending fraudulent emails purporting to represent legitimate charities.
Be cautious if these charities use vague language or put extreme pressure on you to donate. Charities should never threaten you, and they should always be transparent about how your donation will be used.
If you’d like to donate, consider reaching out to charities of your choosing. Vet any charities you’re interested in supporting by using the following sites:
5. Technical support scams
Many people purchase holiday gifts that require technical support. This presents a prime opportunity for scammers to prey on vulnerable consumers.
Tech support scams are a specific form of social engineering in which the scammer poses as a tech support representative and tries to convince you to give them access to your device. If successful, this access can allow the installation of harmful software and malware, which can then lead to sensitive data loss, or even money being stolen.
As with traditional phishing, the best defense mechanism is to be cautious and avoid providing device access to anyone who is not a trusted party or who you did not contact first.
How to stay safe from holiday scams
When it comes to scams, a combination of caution and education is the best defense. Learn and be aware of the many ways in which scammers may aim to deceive you. Understand how you can best protect yourself.
Keep these tips in mind to maintain a worry-free holiday:
- Pay online with credit cards: Consumers are usually protected against unauthorized use of credit cards. It is better to use a credit card because (unlike a debit card) consumers can seek reimbursement of fraudulent charges. Never wire money directly to a seller and avoid paying for items using gift cards.
- Set up fraud and spending alerts: Bank and credit card accounts often allow you to set up alerts for your own protection. Activate fraud alerts wherever available. Set up alerts for charges above certain dollar amounts.
- Check emails and websites for red flags: Warning signs can include spelling and grammatical mistakes, along with unnecessarily urgent payment timelines.
- Shop with reputable retailers: Even if you prefer shopping with businesses that are less known, always take the extra time to read reviews and verify that you are dealing with a legitimate company. Look carefully to ensure that you are visiting the retailer’s legitimate website, not a look-alike website or fake dealer.
- Be suspicious when asked for personal information: Unless you initiated contact with a trusted party, avoid providing personal information. Unsolicited requests for this information should be denied.
Visit our Security and Fraud Prevention Center to learn more about protecting yourself against fraud.