The holiday season is the high point of the year for many of us. We travel more, buy more, give more to charity and spend more time with friends and family over celebratory food and drink.
Unfortunately, the holidays are also a high point of the year for scammers and criminals. Holiday scams take advantage of both our festive spending patterns and our generosity, and scammers will happily “grinch” the unwary at any opportunity. With that in mind, here are a few of the scams you may encounter this year.
Holiday Shopping Scams
A tremendous amount of shopping gets crammed into the handful of weeks between Black Friday and New Year’s, which makes it prime time for scams and scammers. With online shopping an ever-growing part of the retail trade, it’s never been easier for criminals to take advantage of you. How? Well, to name just a few common examples:
Products that aren’t what you thought: This might include knockoffs substituted for brand-name products, used or refurbished products sold as new, or items — including holiday decorations — that are not at all “as shown.”
Products that never ship: You order, you pay, but no product ever arrives. The vendor either disappears, or “ghosts” you and can’t be contacted. If you purchased from a third-party vendor on a major site like Amazon or Walmart, the platform may at least provide some protection.
Bogus shopping sites: A variant on the same ploy, but with a side of identity theft. In this case the entire site is bogus, but designed to pop up near the top of your search results. They’ll take your money as well as your credit card data and personal info, keeping the former and selling (or exploiting) the latter. They may or may not be designed to resemble a legitimate site.
Bogus pet adoptions: A particularly heartless fraud, scammers use photos and descriptions “scraped” from legitimate adoption sites to sell nonexistent pets (pets are big at the holidays). After you’ve paid for the pet, and the shipping and vet charges, you’ll be out a significant dollar amount and have no pet to show for it.
The end result, in each case, is that you and your money (and sometimes your identity) are parted.
Holiday Charity Scams
Any time people are in a giving mood, scammers will try to take advantage. That’s certainly the case around the holidays, when bogus charitable appeals sprout like mushrooms after a rain. These can take any number of forms.
Phone and mail scams, or bogus websites, often solicit funds for fictitious charities or replicate the sites (and emails) of legitimate charities. Another common tactic is a bogus crowdfunding effort, sometimes fabricated from scratch and sometimes exploiting a real tragedy from the news.
These are usually a straightforward money grab, but of course if the scammers can walk away with your credit card number or other personal information, that’s always a welcome bonus. (Read on for ways to verify that a charity is registered and aboveboard, so your donation goes to help those truly in need.)
Holiday Travel Scams
Similarly, as travel peaks over the holidays, travel scams peak in tandem. The big offenders here are bogus travel sites and call centers. You may see an ad in your search results or on social media, or you may see an emailed “Special Offer!” in your inbox. If you call the number, or click the link, the scammers will cheerfully book you a room at the hotel of your choice, or schedule a flight and a rental car, or sell you travel insurance.
The catch, of course, is that they have no connection with that hotel chain or airline, and your money is lost. If you’re really unfortunate, they’ll also have harvested enough of your personal information to be worth selling.
A Few Holiday-Specific Scams
Most holiday scams are just…well, scams that happen over the holidays. A few are more specifically holiday oriented, though, using holiday traditions as their “hook.”
Letters from Santa: A lot of legitimate organizations will send kids “letters from Santa,” and a lot of scammers offer them as well. At best, you’ll be out the money you’ve paid. At worst, scammers harvest enough information to steal your identity (or your child’s or grandchild’s).
Phishing e-cards: One of the fundamentals of online security is to never click the link in an unsolicited message or email. Unfortunately that’s exactly how electronic greeting cards, or e-cards, are supposed to work, which makes them a great vehicle for phishing attacks.
If you’re uncertain about an email’s legitimacy, try using a reverse email search to look up the sender’s name, location, social media profiles and more.
Seasonal “Santa” apps: Every year the App Store and Play Store are flooded with holiday-themed apps, many of them targeted at kids. They’ll offer anything from seasonal games and puzzles to a video chat with Santa himself. While Apple and Google do their best to vet every app on their respective stores, a few malicious apps will always sneak through (and if you download an app from any other source, all bets are off). Some are just invasively snoopy, others are outright malware. Buyer (and parent) beware!
How To Guard Against Holiday Scams
Protecting yourself against scams requires a combination of healthy skepticism and proactive verification, at the holidays or any other time of the year. Your inner cynic should always be asking key questions, like:
- “Does this sound too good to be true?”
- “Why do they need to know that?”
- “How can I verify that this is legitimate?”
That kind of “sniff test” can help you avoid some obvious scams at the outset. Does it seem logical that a site you’ve never heard of is the only place to have that in-demand game console or toy, instead of Walmart or Amazon? Verify whether you’re dealing with a trustworthy company or charity. Let’s look at some specific examples:
Be sure to make your purchases from vendors with a visible track record and a substantial number of reviews. If there’s a phone number or email address, use Spokeo’s search tools to verify that they belong to a real company. Read and understand their delivery and refund policies. Pay with a credit card, so you have recourse (through the issuer) if you’re stiffed. Pro tip: Some cards have better protections than others, so keep that in mind when you decide which card to use for online shopping.
There are lots of ways to check whether a site is legitimate, shady or downright faked, so invest a few minutes in learning what to look for. This one skill can protect you from many shopping, travel and phishing scams.
Fraudulent Pet Adoptions
A basic web search will tell you whether a shelter by that name exists. Using Spokeo can tell you whether the email address or phone number you’ve been given is really theirs (if the email points to a person in Peoria, not a shelter in California, that’s a red flag). Pasting that heartrending picture of a forlorn pup into Google’s image search will tell you if it’s been scraped from another source, which is also a giveaway.
The FTC has an excellent guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of donating through crowdfunding or social media, which can be especially tricky. Several organizations monitor and rate charities (the FTC’s “Donate Wisely” page lists some), and you can verify a charity’s tax-free status through the IRS’ Tax Exempt Organization Search.
First and foremost, don’t jump on that top search result. Scammers can simply buy a prominent placement on Google, Facebook or other platforms, and use it to send travelers to their bogus site. Instead, look up the official site of that hotel or its parent chain, or a legitimate travel agency or travel aggregator. Google’s image search is your friend here, too: The same photo may show up on multiple vacation-rental sites with different contact names and emails.
Bogus or Malicious Apps
Haul Out the Holly
The bottom line? Yes, scammers are out there and yes, they will do their best to dampen your holiday spirit if you let them. So don’t let them.
Do all the things you look forward to at the holidays — the decorating, the meals, the travel and the gift giving — and enjoy your time with your loved ones. Educating yourself about holiday scams, and knowing how to detect and avoid them, takes you out of the “easy target” category and makes it easier to just celebrate the holidays.
- Better Business Bureau – Going Big With Your Holiday Decorations? Don’t Fall for This Scam
- AARP – Online Fraudsters Sell Nonexistent Pets
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – How To Donate Wisely and Avoid Charity Scams
- AARP – Travel Scams
- Better Business Bureau – Is That Letter From Santa a Scam?
- AARP – Greeting Card Scams
- Better Business Bureau – BBB Tip: Is that Santa App Safe? Better Check It Twice
- Google Search Help – Search With an Image on Google
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Donating Through Crowdfunding, Social Media, and Fundraising PlatformsU.S. Internal Revenue Service – Tax Exempt Organization Search