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How To Avoid The 15 Most Common Holiday Scams (2023 Update)

Scammers ramp up their schemes during the holiday season. Learn how to avoid the worst holiday scams of 2023 while shopping, traveling, and giving.

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      Here’s How To Avoid the Latest Holiday Scams

      Scammers know that the holiday season can be busy with shopping for gifts online, booking holiday travel, looking for seasonal work, or trying to donate to charities — all activities they can use to actively target you with scams.

      By some estimates [*]:

      “Nearly 75% of Americans experienced at least one type of holiday scam last year.”

      The last thing you want to dampen your holiday cheer is to become the victim of a scam.

      In this guide, we’ll cover how holiday scams typically work, the worst scams of the 2023 holiday season, and how to protect yourself into the new year.

      {{show-toc}}

      How Do Holiday Scams Work? How Bad Are They?

      Holiday scams capitalize on the increase in online shopping, travel, and charitable giving during the holiday season by trying to trick you into giving up money, gift cards, or sensitive information.

      According to the FBI [*]:

      Americans lost over $281 million to online shopping and non-delivery scams last year alone — with many of these taking place over the holiday season.

      What makes holiday scams especially dangerous is that they can take numerous different forms.

      Here are some of the most common ways that scammers target you during the holidays:

      • Social media ads that lead you to fake online stores. Fraudsters use ads on social media to try to get you to go to fake stores that steal your money, credit card details, or personal information. In the worst case scenario, you could even become the victim of identity theft.
      • Fake delivery notification texts. Scammers send fake text messages claiming that a package you’re waiting for has been delayed or that you need to pay a fee before it can be delivered.
      • Fraudulent charities that steal your money. Con artists create fake charities or GoFundMe campaigns to trick you into sending money or sharing your personal information.
      • Bogus deals on hard-to-find items or airline tickets. Many schemes take advantage of popular holiday items or inflated travel costs to get you to buy fake tickets or items.
      • Fake surveys, giveaways, and other phishing emails impersonating well-known brands. Scammers send emails (as well as texts and phone calls) claiming to be from companies you know, such as Amazon or Walmart. These messages use social engineering tactics to steal your passwords, personal information, and financial details.

      If you fall for one of these holiday scams, the consequences can be dire. Scammers could steal your money, drain your bank account, or even steal your identity.

      So, what holiday scams should you be looking out for this year?

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      The 15 Latest Holiday Scams To Watch Out for in 2023

      Holiday scams can happen at any time — from Black Friday and Cyber Monday to the weeks and months leading up to the end of the year.

      Here are 15 common scams to watch out for this holiday season:

      1. Fake charities that steal your money

      Scammers take advantage of your generosity during the holiday season and create fake charities, GoFundMe campaigns, and other charitable activities. These charity scams can be incredibly hard to spot — until you’ve lost money or given up sensitive information.

      Warning signs of a holiday charity scam:

      • Always check the URL and charity name before donating. Scammers often create “lookalike” charities that use variations of trusted names to fool you.
      • Be cautious if you experience hard-sell tactics or vague language. Charities should never threaten you, and you should always be able to tell how your donations will be spent.

      The bottom line: Research charities before you donate. You can check that a charity is legit by using the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Navigator. For GoFundMe and similar campaigns, look into the organizer or group behind it before donating.

      📚 Related: How To Identify Veteran Charity Scams

      2. Gift card scams (including empty gift cards)

      Scammers love gift cards because they’re easy to buy and almost impossible to trace or refund. Many holiday scams revolve around buying and selling fraudulent gift cards or tricking you into giving up the numbers on the backs of gift cards.

      For example, cybercriminals may create fake stores or Craigslist listings for discounted gift cards. But if you send them money, you’ll receive an empty gift card in return.

      Warning signs of a holiday gift card scam:

      • Never pay for goods, services, fees, fines, or taxes with gift cards. Scammers will impersonate your bank, government agencies, or other authoritative people and demand payment in gift cards.
      • If you buy gift cards in a store, make sure that they haven’t been tampered with. Run your finger over the back to see if the sticker has been scratched off or replaced. Get a receipt so that you can verify the purchase if your card is lost or stolen.
      • Only purchase gift cards from reputable retailers. If you’re buying online, check the store’s URL to see if it’s secure. Whenever possible, buy gift cards from the actual retailer or company.

      The bottom line: Only use gift cards as gifts. If anyone asks you to pay fees or “protect your money” by buying gift cards, it’s a scam. Also, only use gift cards at the issuer's store. For example, redeem Google Play gift cards to purchase products on Google Play.

      📚 Related: The 11 Worst Gift Card Scams You Didn't Know About (Until Now)

      3. Lookalike online stores offering big discounts

      With more people than ever before shopping online since the start of the pandemic, it’s important to know how to shop online safely.

      Scammers create online stores with deeply discounted prices to trick you into buying from them. If you do, they’ll either steal your credit card number or force you to use payment methods that can’t be reversed (such as wire transfers, payment apps like Zelle, or gift cards).

      Warning signs of a fake online store:

      • They advertise significant discounts (50% off or more) on all of their items. If an obscure online store offers the best available prices online, there’s a good chance it’s a scam.
      • The site contains signs of a phishing scam, such as poor spelling and grammar, bad quality images, and fake-sounding reviews.
      • It’s missing basic company information, such as an “About Us” page, contact information (like a phone number and address), or information about returns.

      The bottom line: Stick to reputable online stores as much as possible at this time of year. If you still want to buy from a smaller retailer, do your research (a Google search of “[Company name] + scam” is a good start), and use a credit card for your purchase.

      📚 Related: How To Shop Online Safely [14 Tips]

      4. Phishing emails or texts from companies that you trust

      Scammers use the busyness of the holiday season to send phishing emails posing as companies or agencies that you trust. For example, they may impersonate companies like Amazon or Apple to offer “giveaways” or claim to be from your bank and warning you that your account has been compromised.

      But the goal is always the same: Get you to click on a suspicious link or call a phone number and give up money or sensitive information.

      Scammers will send messages offering you “free gifts” — in return for your sensitive information. Source: Aura team

      Warning signs of holiday phishing scams:

      • You receive an unsolicited message about a special offer or prize. Any email or text message that you didn’t request should be treated with caution.
      • The message contains a strange link. Phishing scams try to take you to a fake website or infect your device with malware. Always hover over links to see where they’re taking you before clicking.
      • There are other signs of a phishing scam, such as strange spelling, grammar, and formatting issues.

      The bottom line: Learn the warning signs of a phishing scam. Ignore emails and texts from people you don’t know, and never click on unfamiliar links. When in doubt, log in to your account or contact the company directly to see if the message is legitimate.

      📚 Related: Phishing Email Examples: 20 Emails That Don’t Look Like It

      5. Fraudulent seasonal job offers

      Job scams are a growing problem year-round. But during the holiday season, scammers prey on people looking to make extra cash by posting fake job listings offering good money for little work. In almost all cases, the scammers will either steal your personal information during the “hiring process” or trick you into sending them money for “supplies and training.”

      Warning signs of a seasonal job scam:

      • Be very cautious if you’re hired with little to no process. Scammers will either offer you a position on the spot or conduct a quick interview over WhatsApp or Telegram.
      • Beware of any job that asks for your personal information right away — including your Social Security number (SSN), bank account numbers, or tax information.
      • You’re asked to cash a check and send extra money back to the company. This is a clear warning sign of a refund scam.

      The bottom line: Research the company before giving them your personal info. Check review sites like Glassdoor to see if anyone has left comments about the company. Make sure you don’t share sensitive information until you can verify that the identity of the person and the company offering you the job are both legitimate.

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      6. Missed delivery notification scam texts

      It’s common for people to be waiting on packages during the holiday season. One recent scam involves fraudsters sending fake delivery notification text messages, in hopes that you’ll click on the link.

      These scam texts will take you to a fake website designed to either steal your personal information, ask for your credit card number, or fool you into sending the scammers money.

      Warning signs of a fake delivery notification text:

      • You’re asked to enter sensitive information. FedEX, UPS, and other delivery companies won’t ask for your SSN or credit card number to “find” your delivery.
      • The link in the text takes you to a site that isn’t on the official UPS, USPS, or FedEx domains. For example, you can trust websites that use UPS.com, FedEx.com, or USPS.com; but other variations of these domain addresses are scams

      The bottom line: Track deliveries through the delivery company’s official website. Make sure to visit the site directly — do not use the link provided in a text message or email.

      📚 Related: The 10 Latest Costco Scams You Didn't Know About

      7. Grandparent scams (fraudsters posing as family members)

      This especially insidious holiday scam mainly targets senior citizens. Scammers text or email posing as a grandchild in trouble, and ask for money — usually through wire transfers or gift cards. According to the FBI, elder fraud costs victims $3 billion in losses each year [*].

      Warning signs of a grandparent scam:

      • Someone texts or emails claiming to be a family member in need, but asks you not to tell anyone else about it.
      • The message sounds strange. When in doubt, trust your gut and call the family member directly to confirm it’s them.  

      The bottom line: Create a secret family “passcode” to use on calls. This way, you have an easy way to ensure the person you’re speaking with is legitimate. For added peace of mind, consider a family identity theft protection plan with credit monitoring. Find the right protection for your entire family

      8. Social ads promoting fraudulent items

      Holiday scammers create ads on social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok that link to fake stores or listings. According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), many of these ads promote personalized items, which may seem like the perfect gift for someone who “has it all” [*].

      At best, you’ll end up with a phony or counterfeit item. At worst, your money or identity could be stolen.

      Warning signs of a fake social media ad:

      • The link takes you to an online store that shows signs of being a scam. Be especially careful if it doesn’t include contact information (other than an online form).
      • The account that posted the ad has a low follower count and looks like it could be a scam.
      • The ad promotes a too-good-to-be true deal on in-demand or luxury products. Retailers rarely offer deep discounts this time of year.

      The bottom line: Check ads and the sites they link to for signs of a scam. Don’t assume a site or store is legitimate just because you saw it on social media. Instead, always look for warning signs indicating that you’ve been taken to a fake or malicious online store.

      📚 Related: 10 Amazon Gift Card Scams You Need to Avoid

      9. Popular holiday gifts at too-good-to-be-true prices

      In the rush to get the season’s most sought-after gifts, many shoppers ignore the warning signs of a scam. Fraudsters often list items on platforms like Facebook Marketplace at a steep discount and then ask you to pay via payment apps such as Zelle or Cash App (that can’t be reversed).

      Warning signs of a too-good-to-be-true deal:

      • A hot-ticket item is listed at a significant discount. Don’t trust sellers who offer sob stories about why they have to get rid of the item — this is a classic scam.
      • You’re asked to pay using Zelle, Cash App, or another similar app. These payment methods are like cash. Once you send the scammer money, it’s gone.

      The bottom line: Do your due diligence before purchasing. Check the store for signs of a scam and research them through the BBB, Reddit, or a Google search to see if other people have had experiences with them.

      📚 Related: 14 Cash App Scams You Didn’t Know About (Until Now)

      10. Holiday travel and online airfare scams

      Many people look for cheap airline tickets over the holiday season, leading scammers to target travelers with schemes ranging from bogus flight-booking websites to fraudulent flight cancellation emails and sudden price increases.

      Warning signs of an airline scam:

      • A website or marketplace seller is offering airline tickets at a significant discount. Fake travel agencies tout huge deals to try and get you to suspend your suspicions.
      • You’re contacted and asked to pay extra for a flight, or are told your travel has been canceled and you need to pay more to rebook it.

      The bottom line: Purchase airline tickets directly from the airline (or through reputable third-party sellers that offer customer service). If you receive any messages about your trip, contact the airline directly to make sure the message is legitimate.

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      11. Fake online giveaways and surveys on social media

      Scammers use social media to list fake holiday giveaways or surveys that offer gifts and “free cash” in exchange for your personal information. Some fraudsters may even use bot accounts to “like” giveaways, which makes the scam look like the real deal.

      Warning signs of a fake online giveaway or survey:

      • You’re asked to provide sensitive information in return for a free gift. Be especially cautious if you’re asked for financial information (such as your credit card number) or details about your workplace.
      • You’re told you’ve won a free prize but need to pay a small fee to receive it.

      The bottom line: Don’t trust anyone who offers you free money or gifts — especially if you never entered the giveaway. If you’re asked to pay or provide sensitive information in exchange for a prize, it’s a scam.

      📚 Related: The 10 Biggest Instagram Scams Happening Right Now

      12. Scam online gift exchanges (i.e. Secret Santa scams)

      Fraudsters use the traditional Secret Santa game to trick you into sending money and gifts to them (as well as giving up your personal information).

      In these scams, you’re asked to provide your name and address, along with the contact information of a few friends. Then, you’re asked to send money or small gifts to a stranger on the list. In return, you’ll receive multiple gifts from other people who participate.

      But the whole thing is a scam and any money, information, or gifts you send go straight to the scammers.

      Warning signs of a fake online store:

      • You’re offered multiple gifts in return for sending money or presents to a stranger. As the BBB notes, technically these are pyramid schemes which are illegal in the United States [*].
      • You’re asked for personal information in order to enter the program. Scammers can use this to steal your identity or target you with more scams.

      The bottom line: Ignore and report these posts to the social media platform on which you found them.

      13. Hacking over public Wi-Fi

      Resist the temptation to shop over Wi-Fi when you’re out during the holiday season, as public Wi-Fi is notoriously easy to hack. The same goes for other common places where you'll find unsecured Wi-Fi networks, such as hotels and airports.

      Scammers use what’s called a man-in-the-middle (MiTM) attack to intercept your data — including your credit card numbers, passwords, and personal information.  

      Warning signs of a dangerous Wi-Fi network:

      • A Wi-Fi network doesn’t require a password to join. Scammers can easily break into unsecured Wi-Fi networks and steal your information.
      • The network name is something vague (i.e. “Free-Wifi”), or is similar to a trusted network (i.e. “Strabucks free wi-fi”) but contains a slight misspelling that the scammers hope you won’t notice.

      The bottom line: Use a virtual private network (VPN) whenever you’re on public Wi-Fi. A VPN encrypts your data so that hackers can’t see or steal it.

      14. Stealing mail and packages

      With packages, orders, and cards coming to your home throughout the holiday season, porch piracy is on the rise. Scammers look for cards containing cash and gift cards, as well as packages that they can steal and resell.

      Even worse, if scammers steal mail with your sensitive information — such as your credit card or bank statements — they could steal your identity.

      Warning signs of mail theft:

      • You’re missing mail and packages, or your mailbox shows signs that someone has tampered with it.
      • You receive mail or package delivery notifications, but no packages arrive.

      The bottom line: Secure your incoming mail. Sign up for USPS Informed Delivery®, which gives you a preview of your incoming mail and packages, and allows you to control their delivery. For added security, consider investing in a secure mailbox or porch lock box.

      📚 Related: What Is the Target Gift Card Scam? (How To Avoid It)

      15. Shoulder surfing and card skimming while shopping

      Holiday scams don’t just happen online. Scammers take advantage of busy shopping days to steal your personal or financial information.

      Shoulder surfing occurs when scammers listen in or spy on you as you enter your card details in public. Skimming devices steal your credit and debit card information when you use unsecured ATMs — such as at gas stations or outside your bank or credit union.

      Warning signs of a card skimming or shoulder surfing scam:

      • An ATM shows signs that it has been tampered with or is located in an unsecured location.
      • Someone is standing close to you as you enter your PIN or when you provide card details online.

      The bottom line: Be extra cautious when using your bank cards in public places. Physically shield your card and PIN when using them, and check all ATMs for indications that they may have been tampered with. When in doubt, choose to pay inside where it’s much harder for scammers to install skimming devices.

      🏆 Don’t settle for second-best protection against fraud and scams. Aura’s #1-rated fraud and identity theft protection solution keeps your bank account, identity, and private data safe. Try Aura free for 14 days.

      How To Avoid Online Holiday Scams

      • Learn the signs of a fake or unsecured website. Look for security markers, such as a padlock near the URL (which illustrates that a site has a valid security certificate and hackers can’t easily steal your information). But don’t blindly trust these symbols. Always look for warning signs that you’re on a fake site — such as poor spelling, strange formatting, bad design, and lack of contact information.
      • Research retailers before shopping. If it's not a reputable vendor, don't assume anything. Search the company’s name on the BBB’s Scam Tracker website as well as Reddit, and look for complaints or warnings about scams.
      • Be wary of unfamiliar emails and texts. Don’t open attachments or click on links if you don’t know the sender. Also, never provide sensitive information through email.
      • Don’t share information with unfamiliar companies or websites. If you click on a link and end up on an unfamiliar website, don’t enter your passwords or sensitive information. If you want to contact a business, type their web address directly into your device’s search bar to make sure you go to the company’s official website.
      • Secure your online accounts with strong passwords and 2FA. Use unique passwords for each of your online accounts. Whenever possible, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) to make it harder for hackers to break into your account.
      • Watch out for scam phone calls. Scammers engage in all types of phone scams at this time of year (also known as “vishing”). Never trust unsolicited phone calls. When in doubt, hang up and call the company or agency back using their official phone number.
      • Monitor your online bank statements: During the holidays, it's easy to let money flow in and out of your accounts without paying much attention. Check your accounts regularly for suspicious activity.
      • Use credit cards for your online purchases. Debit cards don’t offer the same level of protection against fraudulent card use as credit cards. If someone scams you using your credit card numbers, you have a better chance of getting your money back.
      • Only buy gift cards from trusted vendors. Avoid purchasing gift cards from auction sites. Instead, buy them directly from a reputable vendor. If you purchase the cards in a store, check that the card details are still fully obscured and there is no damage to the card.
      • Consider investing in an all-in-one digital security solution. Aura combines proactive digital security (antivirus, VPN, password manager, and more) with top-rated identity theft protection and credit monitoring to keep your entire family safe. Try Aura free for 14 days and see if it’s right for you →
      • If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t let a good deal cloud your judgment. Stay skeptical and stay safe.

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

      Were You Scammed This Holiday Season?

      If you think you’ve been the victim of a holiday shopping scam, acting fast can make a big difference. With a quick response, you can limit the damage on your accounts, increase the chances of retrieving your money, and potentially aid police in catching the perpetrator.

      Here are four crucial steps:

      1. Protect your financial accounts. Report the fraud immediately to your bank or credit card lender. Ask them to stop all direct debits as well as reverse any suspected fraudulent transactions. You should also consider freezing or locking your credit report.
      2. Alert the authorities. File an official report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov. If you have information about the scammers that could lead to an arrest, make sure you also file a police report with your local law enforcement.
      3. Secure your accounts and devices. Update all passwords and do a full scan of your devices using antivirus software. Hackers can strike at any time.
      4. Follow the steps in the fraud victims checklist. Set up credit monitoring, and use a password manager to warn you if your accounts have been compromised.

      📚 Related: What To Do if Your Identity Is Stolen

      How To Give the Gift of Cybersecurity This Year

      The holidays are a time for cheer and getting together with people you love. Don’t let scammers spoil your holiday season by defrauding you or stealing your identity.

      Learn to spot the warning signs of common holiday scams so that you and your family can stay safe during this time of year.

      And for added protection, consider signing up for Aura.

      With Aura, you get:

      • Award-winning identity theft protection with 24/7 support from our team of White Glove Fraud Resolution specialists.
      • Three-bureau credit monitoring with the industry’s fastest fraud alerts to warn you if your credit and financial accounts are at risk.
      • AI-powered digital security to proactively protect you against hackers and online scammers (including antivirus, a password manager, phishing site protection, VPN, and AI-powered spam call blocker).
      • Up to $5 million insurance for eligible losses due to identity theft.
      Connect online safely during the holidays. Try Aura free for 14 days.

      Award-winning identity theft protection with AI-powered digital security tools, 24/7 White Glove support, and more. Try Aura for free.

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