As you head into the final stretch of the busiest shopping season of the year, be aware that shopping scams are more common and creative than ever, including scams that attempt to take advantage of your charitable giving.
Consider the following tips to help minimize your risk of becoming a fraud victim this holiday season:
- Safely buy and use gift cards. Buy gift cards from stores you know and trust, and avoid buying gift cards from unfamiliar websites. If you receive a physical card, make sure that there are protective stickers and that the gift card hasn’t been tampered with. Also, remember to keep your receipt. Having the receipt or card ID number handy will help when filing a report if a gift card is lost or fraudulent. Do not pay using a gift card when a caller says you have to pay something urgently, advises you to buy a specific gift card from certain stores, or asks you for a gift card number and PIN.
- Verify the seller. Before making an online purchase, conduct basic research to verify the validity of the website you’re purchasing from. Read customer reviews on Google, other review websites and on social media.
- There are more opportunities for fraudsters to hack personal information when you engage in online shopping. To take precautions, be aware of fake websites and make sure that a web address starts with https:// rather than http:// to ensure you’re sharing sensitive information through a secure web connection. Protect your sensitive information by choosing not to save your credit/debit card information on retailer sites when making online purchases. If possible, use a credit card rather than a debit card. If your credit card is compromised, the credit card company carries more of the risk. If your debit card is compromised, your hard earned money is instantly at risk. You can also stay alert by using online and mobile banking to monitor your financial accounts regularly for fraudulent transactions.
- A higher volume of packages and deliveries means a higher volume of fake texts and emails attempting to get your money. There are hundreds of scam texts that look like known delivery companies (FedEx, UPS, Amazon, etc.) but aren’t. These text messages will include a link to reschedule a delivery and send you to a webpage that requests your name, address and phone number, and then prompts you to pay a “redelivery fee.” To pay the fee, you’re asked to verify your social security number, driver’s license number and email address. With this information, the scammer has all of the information they need. To avoid this scam, do not click links or attachments in a text message like this, even if the link seems to match the delivery company. Instead, go directly to a known website to verify.
- Know the signs of a secret or mystery shopper scam. Companies hire secret shoppers to learn more about their customers’ experiences and find areas of improvement. There are many legitimate secret shopper opportunities, but there are fraudulent postings as well. A legitimate opportunity will not ask you to pay money to get started, registered or certified. A fraudster, however, may ask for money upfront, a wire or for you to deposit a check and send some of the money back. The Mystery Shoppers Professionals Association does not hire or advertise for secret shoppers. However, they do have a list of companies that you can register with to find companies hiring secret shoppers.
- Loans can be a viable option to get extra money for the holidays, but beware of loan scams. When a lender says it will lend money without running a credit check, that is a red flag. A reputable lender will always conduct a credit check to protect itself. Additionally, consumers dealing with financial problems may be told by a scammer that they have been approved for a loan that they did not initiate—do not engage with this type of lender. If a lender asks you to pay a portion or all of the loan back right away to prove you are a credible customer, this is also a red flag. Reputable lenders will set up a payment schedule for repayment, not demand a lump sum.
- Don’t let your business fall victim to a business email compromise (BEC) scam. Businesses are more susceptible to this type of email cyber crime scam—in which the fraudster targets a business to trick them into sending money, usually via wire or ACH—because of decreased staffing with more employees taking time off, executives traveling during the holidays and increased expenses.
Here are a few BEC scams:
- False Invoice Scheme: Companies with foreign clients are often targeted with this tactic. The fraudster pretends to be the client requesting a funds transfer for a payment.
- CEO Fraud: The fraudster poses as the company CEO or another executive traveling for the holidays and sends an email to the employee that requests assistance in facilitating an urgent payment. The payment is then sent to a fraudulent bank account.
- Attorney Impersonation: The fraudster impersonates a lawyer or other representative from a law firm responsible for payments. Often, this type of BEC scam occurs at the end of the day when most of the executive staff has already left for the day and the employee doesn’t have the knowledge or authority to question the validity of the request.
- Holiday travelers should be aware of TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry scams. Scammers build websites to mirror legitimate government websites, but automatically steal your sensitive and personal information—and possibly your hard earned money—just by clicking on the link. Scammers pay to have their ads on the top of your search engine when you search such topics. If you want to skip the airport lines, make sure you apply for these government programs directly on tsa.gov or cbp.gov.
- If a stranger or someone you have only met online sends you a check out of the blue, don’t cash it. Fake checks come in many forms. They can look like business or personal checks, cashier checks, money orders or a check delivered electronically. If anything seems fishy about a transaction, don’t do it. If you decide to trust someone you do not know well to pay you by check and it’s more than the agreed upon amount, do not accept it.
- ‘Tis the season for giving and scammers view this as the perfect opportunity to receive your charitable donations. According to data from the TransUnion 2020 Holiday Retail Report, charity scams are so popular during the winter holidays due to simple mathematics—almost one-third (31%) of all donations from Americans in any given year are made during the month of December. Charity fraud is the act of using deception to get money from people who believe they are making donations to charities. Often, a person or a group will make representations that they are part of a charity and ask prospective donors for contributions to the non-existent charity.
Always verify a charity's legitimacy through its official website. If you have doubts, you can check with the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or GuideStar. Be aware of organizations with copycat names or names similar to reputable organizations. Finally, if a charity or organization asks you to donate through cash, gift card, virtual currency or wire transfer, it's probably a scam.
If you suspect a scam, you are encouraged to report it to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov to help spread awareness of new scams.