How To Avoid Holiday Shopping Scams

Online holiday shopping has increased, in-part, due to Covid and due to the success of online Black Friday and Cyber Week deals. Many people are aiming to take advantage of these and other holiday shopping deals earlier than ever this year. It’s important to be careful of scams as you shop.

The following are popular scams to watch out for this holiday season:

  • The Secret Sister Gift Exchange. The United States Postal Inspection Service calls Secret Sister a pyramid scheme, noting that it preys on people’s hopes and emotions. Popular on Facebook and Instagram, participants are promised to receive multiple gifts in exchange for one gift, usually valued at around $10 dollars. The premise is to keep the exchange a secret because it’s between close online friends or family.  While some users may receive gifts, it’s mathematically impossible for everyone—usually new participants—to receive the equivalent of what they contributed. The scammers can also use your personal information to mark you as a target for future scams or identity theft.
  • Coupon Scams and Fake Freebies. These are often fake online advertisements or messages offering huge discounts from your favorite retail store or telling you that you’ve (try “you have”) won something like a gift card for a significant sum of money or the latest model smartphone.  Usually you are asked to click on a link or fill out personal information. Other times, you are offered a free download. These are usually ploys to steal your personal information or infect your devices with malware. Sometimes retailers do giveaways or offer discounts, so it’s always best to check the company’s actual website or contact them directly if you are not sure.
  • Package Theft and Delivery Scams.  As of 2017, 23 million recipients per year miss out on their Christmas gifts because thieves steal them from their doorstep. It is possible to reduce the risk by making arrangements to require a signature upon receipt. If you are ordering through Amazon, you can arrange to have a package go to a pickup box, which requires a code to open. Using a pickup box is free and they are available across the United States. Hand-in-hand with stolen packages are the delivery scams. Scammers take advantage of individuals who may be tracking packages by sending out spoof emails from Fed-Ex and UPS. These contain fake tracking numbers designed to steal information or download malware once they are clicked. Whenever you receive a tracking number, copy-paste it into the official website of the delivery company or onto Google. Doing so will help validate you are in possession of an actual tracking number.
  • Gift Card Scams. Gift cards are an easy, popular gift. They are also an easy, popular target for scammers who sell expired, empty, or inactive gift cards. Whenever you buy or receive a gift card, be sure to inspect it for an exposed activation code. If you see an activation code, this probably means that the card has been used or soon will be.
  • Pet Scams. Puppies and kittens are on many people’s holiday wish lists. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to scam people out of money by claiming to be out of state or offering designer breeds and asking for money in advance of shipping the furry friend out to its new home. If you really want a new pet, consider researching locally. If you want to adopt from a certain online breeder or organization, be sure to thoroughly research before making any payments.
  • Cyber Week Scams. Cyber Week is a huge shopping event and many scammers are out in full force trying to get you to visit bogus sites or purchase nonexistent or knockoff items. Avoid clicking on offsite advertisements and shop through the company website whenever possible. If you can, make sure that you are shopping on a secure website. You’ll see https instead of http in the site URL. Do your best to pay with a credit card as well so that you can dispute a fraudulent charge if need be.
  • Charity Scams. The holiday season is a time when many people are especially generous with their donations. Scammers often take advantage of this by tugging on donors’ heartstrings. Before you give any money, do your research. Don’t give money to a charity you don’t know anything about. Scammers will often name their company or campaign something similar to one that you are familiar with. Beware of telephone appeals or a rush to give money immediately or in cash, gift cards, or money orders. These are usually red flags.
  • Email Issue Scams. We have also noticed an increase in email scams where the tactic used by the criminals is to send an email to you claiming an issue with your Apple account, PayPal, Fed-Ex, or other delivery. These often come complete with company logos. These, and other similar issues, are so curious in nature they are excellent at getting us to click on them and follow a link or call a telephone number. Refrain from doing this. Some of these emails may contain some correct information from the company they claim to be. If you do not have an Apple account, there is no need to be curious and investigate a potential hack. You will most likely lose if you open and click!

If you have an account with the entity being portrayed in the email, do not use anything in the email to get you to the company. Instead, open a new tab on your computer and conduct a fresh search for the company. Check with them to see whether they have called, or emailed you and if so, let the representative explain what the issue is. Chances are that the real company will not have sent you the email. If you are one of the more adept computer savvy people, you can “hover” your curser over the links or other potentially shielded content and see whether the information that populates for the link is an odd-random, unrelated destination address. Be careful not to play with fire though. Remember to change your passwords regularly on important accounts of any sensitive nature. Every 90 days is a good idea. Using two-step verification log-in that sends your cell phone a text code for security is a particularly good tool to prevent log-ins from unwanted third parties.

How to Stay Safe

While there are a lot of potential scams to look out for, there are a lot of things that you can do to stay safe. Most importantly, do your research. Look for any reviews or notices about scams. The Better Business Bureau notes that 81 percent of the people who did not research the business or website before purchasing lost money.

When  you are shopping online, be wary of huge discounts on popular items. These are usually touted on social media or through people that you may not know. These discounts are often too good to be true. Remember that professional photos do not always guarantee that the offer is legitimate. Scammers know that people are more likely to use professional photos for pet scams.

Keep an eye out for excessive spelling or grammatical errors on the websites you shop on. Poor grammar is usually a sign that you are on a spoof site. If the company logo or other images are not as clear or correct as you recall, this may be another indication of a counterfeit website. Be on the lookout for sites that don’t have security policies. This generally means that your personal information (billing address, credit card or bank information) isn’t safe and can be stolen.  

Finally, if you can, pay by credit card. This way it’s easier to dispute fraudulent purchases and get your money back. Be careful of paying through digital means like PayPal or ApplePay. You can dispute purchases, but sometimes your claim can be denied. Your disputed credit card claim can also be denied, but the chances are far less likely because the credit card company will be more familiar with your shopping habits.

All in all, if you are cautious and prepared, you can stay safe and avoid being scammed. Linked Investigations, the go-to private investigation company based in California, has conducted numerous undercover operations on thieves, scammers, and con artists, had them arrested, and saved companies and individuals millions of dollars. If you need a background check or assistance with verifying information in the event of potential fraud, or surveillance to catch a criminal, reach out to Linked Investigations to speak with a licensed private investigator about your situation. Owner Mike Garroutte has been a private investigator since 1982 and is licensed in the state of California.


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