The 6 Biggest Holiday Scams That Get Millions Of People Every Year

’Tis the season for merriment ― and scams.

In a new AARP survey of 1,880 U.S. holiday shoppers, 80% of respondents said they’ve encountered holiday fraud, with fake shipping notifications being the top issue (53%), followed by fraudulent products bought through an online ad (38%). In 2020, a report from Experian found that one in four Americans have fallen victim to fraud during the holidays. It’s estimated that millions of people are affected by scams each year.

Why are we more vulnerable during the holidays to getting scammed?

Michael Jabbara, the vice president and global head of fraud services for Visa, said the uptick in holiday scams happens for several reasons. One reason is that we tend to spend more money during this time, so the payoff is higher for scammers. And our panicked stress to find loved ones the perfect gift is an advantage to scammers.

“Fraudsters really love it when we’re in that heightened emotional state because we tend to make terrible decisions during that time,” he said. “That’s the time they like to strike.”

To avoid being scammed, it helps to know how fraudsters operate during the holidays. Experts shared the top scams to watch out for this season ― and how to spot them:

1. The Charity Scam

The holidays are a giving time of year, and scammers like to inundate our inboxes with pleas to donate to seemingly legitimate causes and charities.

In the AARP survey, more than one in three Americans said they’d received a request for a monetary donation to a charity that felt fraudulent. But often, you may not know the charity was a scam until it’s too late.

“A lot of times with charity frauds, victims don’t know that they’re actually a victim,” said Amy Nofziger, the director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “Let’s say you do give money to a charity that you think’s legitimate. You’re not going to necessarily know that it’s not until maybe they get found and prosecuted, and then your name’s on some victims’ list.“

A key difference between a legitimate charity and one that is not is whether they are pressuring you to donate right away. “Any good, legitimate charity will take your money today, tomorrow, or the next day,” Nofziger said.

And do your research. Check to see if your money is going to the cause you support by looking it up on sites like Charity Navigator and CharityWatch, which will include reviews and company finance information.

And when you donate, go directly to the charity’s website ― don’t click on a link you got via email or text, as Nofziger recommended.

2. The Too-Good-To-Be-True Deal Scam

Every year, there are hot-ticket items that sell out around the holidays. Scammers know this and will send victims emails or create a listing on Facebook Marketplace with the sneakers or consoles you’ve been hunting for. Only it’s not a legitimate sale.

“It takes you to a website that looks eerily similar to the website that you would expect where this good would be sold. You’re very excited about it, you click on the link, and you complete the transaction,” Jabbara said regarding how the scheme typically goes. “But of course, you either don’t receive the goods and now your payment information is exfiltrated.”

To avoid losing money, do a gut check with yourself about those deals you spot on the internet. Ask yourself, “Does it make sense for me to pay this low of an amount for the good or service that I’m receiving?” Jabbara said.

Nofziger said it’s a red flag if the seller has every size and color available when any other website is sold out of that item. Even if the seller does send you the sneakers you wanted, she said it might be counterfeit.

If it’s a seller on Facebook Marketplace, avoid listings that only list peer-to-peer payment systems like Venmo, CashApp or Zelle as an option because scammers prefer these untraceable and unretractable forms of payment. Be wary of sellers who refuse to meet in person.

3. The Gift Card Scam

Those physical gift cards you buy to give as stocking stuffers may not actually have money when you activate them.

That’s because scammers are known to tamper with gift cards on display racks and set it up so that when you register to activate them, the scammer will be notified and they can spend or transfer the funds before you or your gift recipient can use it.

To avoid getting fooled, pick gift cards behind the cashier or online when you have a choice ― those are less likely to be tampered with. And when you do receive gift cards, use them right away to give scammers less time to manipulate them.

4. The Holiday Airfare Travel Scam

If a holiday deal that feels too good to be true comes through your inbox, be wary. Some scammers impersonate airline customer service agents to get your personal and banking information.

“They think they’re talking to Delta. They think they’re talking to VRBO, but they’re just talking to an impostor,” Nofziger said.

Because imposters often make fraudulent airline websites, Nofziger said you should also be wary of clicking airfare links you found via a search engine result and instead should go directly to the airline’s website.

Double-check if the airline customer service phone number you found via a search engine is the proper one.

If you call a fraudulent number, the scammer may try to fool you into giving them a gift card with language like, “We can take care of this problem for you right now. Not a problem. And actually, I can offer you a $50 discount if you can get me an Amex [American Express] gift card because we’re running a special with Amex,” Nofziger said as an example.

5. The Malware Merchant Checkout Scam

Sometimes, even though the holiday seller is legitimate, the checkout system has been compromised.

“We’re seeing the injection of malware on merchant checkout pages,” Jabbara said. “So these are legitimate merchants, but they have malicious code on their payment page where you’re entering your payment information at the same time that information is recorded and then exfiltrated out into a malicious infrastructure that’s controlled by these fraudsters.“

Check if the payment page has secure protocols to transmit your payment data to avoid getting fooled. “If you look at the URL, it should begin with HTTPS, the ‘S’ denoting that it’s using a secure connection to transmit your information,” Jabbara said.

It also helps to check the seller’s reviews and see if they have had a large number of disputes and chargebacks in the past because that’s a red flag, Jabbara said.

6. The Holiday Shipping Scam

During this time of year, you might be waiting for a lot of packages to arrive with your gifts. Under “smishing” ― a term that combines “SMS” and “phishing” ― scammers take advantage of this by impersonating delivery and package services to get you to give up personal or bank details.

“You might get a text message from FedEx or USPS saying that they weren’t able to deliver a package because there was missing information on your account: ‘Just click here to fill the information out, your package will be coming,’” Nofziger said as an example.

Beyond avoiding suspiciously misspelled text messages, keep track of what you’re buying to know who delivers your package and when. “It can be even on a piece of paper or a notepad or something that says, ‘Purchased this for mom from Nordstrom, expect a ship date at this time,’” Nofziger said.

Shipping scams can be incredibly common during the holidays.

10’000 Hours via Getty Images

Shipping scams can be incredibly common during the holidays.

What To Do If You’ve Been Scammed

The experts stressed that the best way to tackle scams is by preventing yourself from getting defrauded in the first place. But if that’s too late, there are still some steps you can take to limit the damage the scammer has done to your pocketbook:

Call your bank.

If you bought a fraudulent purchase with your credit card, call your bank ASAP. “They will carry out an investigation, and if they determine your claim should be valid, you get your money back,” Jabbara said.

Your options are more limited if it is with cash or not on a card.

“If you’re using a peer-to-peer app or using cash or wire transfer or some of non-card payment method, your recourse is somewhat more limited and undefined,” Jabbara said, noting that whether you get money back will depend on the service’s specific policies, and sometimes “it’s kind of a ‘you’re on your own approach.’”

Report the scam to authorities.

Help prevent others from getting scammed by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission online or calling 877-382-4357. You can also file a complaint with your state attorney general’s consumer protection division.

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