Don’t Let These Christmas Scams Take Away Your Holiday Cheer

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Gaetano DiNardi

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    The 7 Scams of Christmas to Avoid

    The Christmas season is upon us. Unfortunately, that also means Christmas scams are on the rise, as cybercriminals seek to steal money, personal information, and identities from holiday shoppers.  

    Consumers have lost over $500 million as a result of fraud since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, with online purchases comprising the majority of reported instances.

    Last year was an unprecedented year for online holiday shopping, with consumers spending a record-breaking $188 billion. Retailers can expect to see fully loaded digital shopping carts again as e-commerce continues to thrive this holiday season — and with that in mind, we must also be prepared to outsmart scammers.

    What is a Christmas Scam?

    Christmas scams refer to fraudulent activities that occur when criminals prey upon unwary shoppers during the holiday season. The goal of a Christmas scam is to wrest sensitive personal information, such as credit card details or identity documents.

    Once thieves obtain your private information, they can make fraudulent online transactions with your stolen credit card information, attempt to access your bank accounts, or commit identity theft.

    Christmas is a busy time of year, making it the ideal season for con artists to prey on unsuspecting consumers.

    Types of Christmas Scams To Know About

    Online Christmas scams appear in several different forms. Here are the most pervasive scams to watch out for this year: 

    1. Look-alike websites
    2. Gift-giving pyramid schemes
    3. Fake job postings
    4. Grandparent scams
    5. Gift card scams
    6. The puppy scam
    7. Travel phishing scams
    Take action: If scammers have your personal information, your bank account, email, and identity could be at risk. Try Aura’s identity theft protection free for 14 days to secure your identity against scammers.

    1. Look-alike websites

    We've all made typos when entering a website address. Typically, a mistyped address leads to a blank webpage or sometimes a simple error message.

    But these spelling mistakes can lead you to a scam website, where bad actors have set up look-alike versions of popular online stores that use similar (but incorrect) website URLs.

    Look-alike holiday scams use professional web designs to closely mirror the appearance and feel of a standard retailer's site, but are often riddled with errors like typos, suspicious URLs, or incorrect customer service phone numbers. Since these sites are almost exact copies of official websites, it can be difficult to recognize this type of online fraud.

    In 2020, Kristi Pimentel was swamped by angry emails from people claiming she had robbed them. As it turns out, a scammer had swiped photos from her site in which she was holding beautiful sea glass Christmas trees that she handcrafts and sells on her legitimate Etsy site.

    The scammer had created a fake site and ran ads on Facebook, tricking unsuspecting victims into sharing their details with a fake “online store.”

    Fake charities (like veterans charity scams) are another type of scam to watch out for during the holidays. Con artists will create replica sites to copy the appearance of a legitimate charity’s website, and leverage fake social media campaigns to trick people with generous hearts into making “donations”.

    Unfortunately, those donations will go directly into the pockets of cybercriminals. Soon after, the fake charity website will disappear.

    📚 Related: The 10 Worst Walmart Scams & Fraudulent Schemes of 2023

    2. Gift-giving pyramid schemes

    Buy one gift and receive several in return? It sounds enticing. However, gift-trading Christmas scams are actually illegal pyramid schemes.

    The Better Business Bureau (BBB) labels these social media gift exchanges as "Secret Sister" exchanges. The thief sends you phishing emails, e-cards, or social media messages with an attractive invitation — send just one gift and receive up to 36 gifts back.

    The scam comes alive when you realize that you won’t actually receive any gifts, and your personal information is now in the hands of a criminal.

    📚 Related: Is Etsy Safe? 7 Etsy Scams You Need To Know

    3. Fake job postings

    Scammers take advantage of eager job seekers by creating bogus employment postings aimed at stealing money and personal information from job applicants.

    In this scam, cybercriminals ask for your private details upfront, and even request that you pay for job training or equipment materials before “starting the job.”

    When an ad for airport shuttle drivers was posted on a 5000-member Facebook group, all applicants had to do was answer a few generic questions over email. As advertised, the applicants thought they were being given a chance to land jobs at Denver International Airport.

    Only as the application progressed did they realize that they were being strong-armed into sharing copies of sensitive documents for the role.

    Online or in-person temporary holiday job scams may soar over this season. Be wary of roles that are offered without formal interviews or official documentation.

    Take action: If you accidentally give scammers your personal data (or its leaked in a data breach), they could take out loans in your name or empty your bank account. Try an identity theft protection service to monitor your finances and alert you to fraud.

    4. Grandparent scams

    Seniors are at greater risk of falling prey to Christmas scams around the holidays. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that consumers who were the age of 80 and older lost more money ($1,600) to fraud on average when compared to other age groups [*].

    Criminals often target a grandparent with this brazen scam, in which they impersonate a grandchild or another young family member requesting money to escape a dire circumstance. Elderly victims may wire payments to a fake account number, only to discover that they've been deceived.

    5. Gift card scams

    With gift card scams, an online vendor requests that you purchase gift cards to pay for an item instead of using a credit card or payment app like PayPal. The FTC states that one in four fraud victims have paid with a gift card, making it a popular vehicle for scammers to steal money from consumers [*].

    For example, let's say you find a great Christmas gift on eBay or Facebook Marketplace. Rather than paying with a credit card through a secure platform, the seller requests that you pay for your purchase with a gift card. Once the card is activated, it’s no longer trackable.

    Another type of scam offers free gift cards over unsolicited emails, phone calls, or text messages. Victims may be duped into sharing personal information in order to claim these fictitious cards.

    📚 Related: What Are Steam Card Scams? How Can You Avoid Them?

    6. The puppy scam

    Every Christmas, thousands of children get new puppies. As if on cue, puppy scammers impersonate breeders and post fake litters for sales. Social media ads offering puppies for sale at discounted prices are an immediate red flag. Many phony sellers also ask for money upfront to cover the cost of shipping, insurance, and vaccinations.

    After wiring $400 to a breeder's website via Western Union, Jo Standridge was taken aback when the site disappeared [*]. She never heard from the seller again — losing both the puppy and her money.

    7. Travel phishing scams

    Scams that dangle vacations abroad or local adventures may also be at an all-time high around Christmas. Lucrative deals especially around Black Friday or Cyber Monday entice eager vacationers to take advantage of bargain pricing.

    However, you should be wary of any offers that seem too good to be true. Travel phishing scams use social engineering on spoofed travel websites to harvest personal information.

    Scam emails that tout free flights, guaranteed travel insurance policies, or inexpensive vacation rentals should also raise an alarm.

    How Can You Avoid Christmas Scams?

    Here's how to shop online safely and avoid run-ins with scammers hiding behind fake accounts and identities this season.

    1. Invest in reliable internet security

    Good security on your devices can prevent fraud. It’s in your best interest to install and activate antivirus software on your browsing device, as well as a virtual private network (VPN) that defends against malware.

    Most reputable sites will utilize proper web security protocols such as SSL encryption. You can confirm this security layer by seeing HTTPS (instead of HTTP) in your browser along with the green padlock icon next to the website's URL address.

    95% of sites found on Google use an HTTPS address since it’s easy to implement and important for protecting your data. Fake websites often lack security certificates, making it easier to intercept your connection and get access to your private information.

    2. Only make purchases from known retailers

    Reputable, big-box retailers such as Amazon take website security seriously. As such, their brand must always remain reputable and trustworthy. To maintain a high degree of consumer trust, their websites are typically free of typos, odd design quirks, dark patterns, and other flaws that would detract from the shopping experience.

    If you notice something strange, it's best to double-check the website address spelling to confirm you're using the real one. When exploring lesser-known sites, read customer feedback on third-party review sites to determine the website's legitimacy. You can also test the URL on Scam Adviser for added peace of mind. 

    This is not to say Amazon is free of delivery scams. If you get an unordered Amazon package, you might be the victim of a brushing scam.

    3. Use a secure password manager

    Most people use the same password across several online accounts. While this is convenient, it exposes you to identity theft. 

    If a bad actor can obtain just one password, they’ll have access to all your other online information, such as your email and online banking details. Try a digital security solution like Aura to manage several complex passwords with one master password, keeping your most important accounts separate and secure. 

    4. Use your credit card, not your debit card

    If you fall victim to a Christmas scam using a debit card, the odds of recovering your money are low, whether it's $10 or $10,000. But consumer protection works differently for credit cards.

    Consumers are only liable for up to $50 on fraudulent activity on their credit cards. So if you’ve paid with a credit card (and not a debit card), you'll have a much better chance of recouping your money if you’re the victim of a Christmas scam — as the credit card company will cover most, if not all, of your stolen funds.

    Were You the Victim of a Christmas Shopping Scam? Do This 

    If you realize you’ve been scammed, it might feel like you have no options for recourse. But it's essential to take action to prevent identity theft, and you might be able to recover your stolen funds in some instances.

    Here are the first steps to take if you're a victim of a Christmas scam:

    • Cut off contact immediately. Do not continue communication with the scammers; you only risk exposing further sensitive information.
    • Alert family and friends. Tell your contacts not to respond to any suspicious messages requesting money or information.
    • Cancel all future payments. If the cybercriminal has access to your bank account or other financial information, contact your bank and cancel any charges immediately. This should help protect you from other types of financial fraud.
    • Freeze your credit. A credit freeze (or credit lock) stops fraudsters from opening new accounts or taking out loans in your name. Contact each of the major credit bureaus to request a credit freeze. Or, use Aura’s one-click credit lock to instantly lock and unlock your Experian credit file.
    • Change your usernames and passwords. If you’ve been hacked or phished, you’ll need to change your usernames and passwords immediately. 
    • Regularly check your credit report and bank statements. Scammers are almost always after your financial accounts. Check for the warning signs of identity theft — such as strange charges on your bank statement or accounts you don’t recognize. An identity theft protection service like Aura can monitor your credit and statements for you and alert you to any signs of fraud.
    • Consider signing up for identity theft protection. Aura’s top-rated identity theft protection monitors all of your most sensitive personal information, online accounts, and finances for signs of fraud. If a scammer tries to access your accounts or finances, Aura can help you take action before it’s too late. Try Aura’s 14-day free trial for immediate protection while you’re most vulnerable.

    Once you complete those steps, you should consider filing a police report — especially if you recognize any major warning signs of identity theft.

    How do you report Christmas scams?

    The faster you report the scam, the better the odds are that you can catch the thief and restore your funds or identity. If you are a victim of a scam, immediately report the incident to the following entities:

    • Your bank or credit card company: Cancel any bank payments and request a chargeback with your credit card lender.
    • The retailer: Inform the online store of the scam so they can investigate the issue and prevent others from becoming victims of fraud.
    • The platform: If the scam involves an ad or message on social media, alert the company. They can take the ad or illegal pop-up down and investigate the scammer's account.
    • The police: Provide any evidence of the theft to local law enforcement and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (ICCC) at Formal documentation from the police or the ICCC will further help your financial institution combat scams. 

    Scammers Are Smart, You Have To Be Smarter

    Unfortunately, fraudsters are scheming to illegally profit from your online shopping activities. Christmas is a prime season for scamming. 

    Keep yourself safe this holiday season by purchasing from well-known, trustworthy brands. If you come across what looks like a “sweet deal” from a smaller retailer, always do your due diligence. 

    Look for plenty of positive reviews, use your credit card instead of your debit card, and make sure that you’ve enabled antivirus security.  

    Do more about your online safety with Aura. Sign up for Aura's free trial.

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