Each year the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day goes on full swing with frantic commercial activity packed into these five weeks. Cyber Monday 2019 tallied over $9 billion in sales, which was approximately 19% higher than the previous year’s total of $7.9 billion. According to Adobe, during the peak hour of shopping, consumers spent an astounding $12 million per minute. 

Frenetic commerce crammed into the short few weeks creates an opportunistic climate for swindlers. Intensified shopping, gifting, and donation transactions concomitantly embolden fraudsters into committing nefarious acts on gullible folks. Holiday scams often center on online transactions. Scammers seek to entrap shoppers through fake websites and false social media campaigns.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), approximately one in ten US adults are victims of fraud each year, and it has increased by about 34 percent from 2017 to 2018. Most of that fraud takes place online. A recent study shows that scams involving contact with online eCommerce sites or social media versus traditional telephone, email, or mail, lead to the highest level of engagement, which ultimately results in victimization. Millennials are more vulnerable to online scams than other groups. 

Some  common scams:

Fake Online offers:  Scammers and “spoofing” sites collect payments through fake item offers with no intention to ship. Victims are also lured into clicking on malware loaded links or attachments to harvest credit card numbers and other personal data to commit identity theft and or sell pilfered information on the dark web. 

Bad checks or money orders: Fraudsters pose as online buyers and intentionally overpay for items with a bad check. Subsequently, they request for an urgent refund of the “inadvertent” overpayment, hoping that the refund will be received before the bad check bounces. 

Charity and Donations: According to Network for Good, a fundraising software company, thirty percent of annual donations to nonprofits occur between #GivingTuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) and New Year’s Eve. Fraudsters exploit goodwill and donations by using fake charity websites and pushy telemarketers.

Delivery: It is estimated that in 2019, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, over 800 million holiday packages will crisscross the US. Swindlers send out phishing emails disguised as UPS, FedEx, or US Postal Service (USPS) notifications of incoming or missed deliveries. Their intent is to tempt gullible recipients into clicking the attached links in these emails. The clicks lead victims to phony sign-in pages, which surreptitiously harvest personal information or direct to sites infested with malware.

Travel: Millions of people travel during the holidays. Spoof booking sites and email offers bait consumers to fake rentals or airline tickets. 

Fake tech support: Grifters lure people with emails or pop-ups and falsely alert users that their computer is infected with a software bug or virus. Scammers pretending to be IT professionals,  pester victims for payment in exchange for phony tech support.

Employment: Grifters fake as potential employers and dupe victims into thinking that they are being considered for a job offer. Victims are tricked into sending money for purported training material and equipment.

Fake sweepstakes, lotteries, and prizes: Cons trick victims into believing that they have won sweepstakes or lottery but must pay an upfront fee to claim their prize. In reality, the prize does not exist. 

Fake debt collection: Fraudsters pretending to be debt collectors harass victims to pay alleged debts that they don’t actually owe. Victims are pressurized by repeated threatening spam calls. 

Phishing: Victims receive disguised emails with attached links to fake websites. Grifters’ goal is to gain access to confidential information, such as social security numbers, date of birth, etc., and use the information to apply for credit cards and loans. 

Tax collection: Cheats pose as government tax collection agents and use threats of immediate arrest or other scare tactics to implore their targets to pay via wire, prepaid cards, or Western Union.

Social Security: Fraudsters pretend to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and warn the victim about their social security number (SSN) suspension due to suspicious activity. Scammers gain access to the victim’s SSN by asking to confirm the number. Payments are also requested to resolve the so-called suspicious activities.

Gift Card: Prior to a gift card sale, fraudsters record the displayed serial number and steal the concealed PIN code. When a victim purchases a tampered gift card, fraudsters use the stolen information to preemptively purchase merchandise, leaving the victim with a worthless gift card.

Warning Signs and Red Flags:

Sellers offering significant discounts on hot gift items via social media postings, through unfamiliar websites, on eCommerce marketplaces like Amazon, or auction websites like eBay, etc.

Sloppy grammar and spelling errors in an email content or eCommerce website.

The website offers products or travel deals but does not list a phone number or street address for the business, instead provides only a fill-in contact form.

An unsolicited email is asking that it be forwarded to friends. Additional requests can be to click on a link, download an app to access a deal, arrange a delivery, or play a video.

A website without a privacy policy.

Do’s During Transactions:

Buy products and services directly from the original provider’s official website. Buying direct is safer. 

When purchasing gift cards at a store, carefully examine for signs of tampering of the scratchable coating on the PIN code. When possible, buy the gift card online. Upon receipt, register the gift card and change the PIN code. Do not wait too long to use the gift card. 

Without clicking, mouse over links in emails and social media ads to display the actual destination URL. Check that the URL begins with “https://” or there’s a padlock or unbroken key icon in the address bar or at the bottom of the browser window. These indicate that it is a secure site.

Pay for online purchases by a credit card. If scammed, one can dispute charges and limit the losses. 

Check the seller’s ratings on eCommerce websites. Buyers and sellers with poor ratings or no ratings should be a red flag.

For items purchased online, get a shipment tracking number, and track the delivery process.

Search the Better Business Bureau (BBB) directory to see if the BBB has accredited the website/online retailer. A history of complaints could be a warning sign.

Use the provider’s two-factor authentication feature to log in to accounts. During the login process, an additional alphanumeric code, along with the user name and password, is required. The one-time alphanumeric code with a time limit is separately sent via text message, email, or the provider’s smartphone app.

Set credit card and bank notification alerts for all transactions and amounts. Regularly review credit card and bank account statements to determine and flag any unauthorized charges. 

Don’ts to avoid being scammed:

Avoid answering unknown calls. Don’t be tempted to click on links and attachments in emails from aliased addresses, or participate in random surveys. 

While on a public Wi-Fi network, don’t make any online financial transactions or transfer any sensitive information.

If a website or caller seeks payment by wire transfer, gift card, or prepaid card, don’t make any payments. 

Don’t engage with sellers who advertise as US businesses but respond to questions by stating they are out of the country on business, family-emergency, or other reasons.

Don’t transact with sellers who post an auction or advertisement under one name but ask that payment be sent to someone else.

Never electronically pay upfront charges for a promise such as job training or sweepstakes, etc.

Don’t offer any personal information to an individual on an incoming call. An official law enforcement agency or credit card company personnel may ask you to verify transactions, but will never ask for private information. 

Never use gift cards, prepaid credit cards, or wire to pay off alleged debts. If someone pressures you, then it is a scam.

Caution and alertness during any transaction process can protect one from fraudsters. Beware of deals that seem too good to be true. Usually, they are!