How to avoid holiday shopping scams

It’s the holiday season, and while 2020 means many traditions will be either virtual or put on hold until next year, there’s one aspect of the happiest time of year that won’t change: holiday scams. Whether you’re shopping online for gifts, donating to charities, or using your debit card in […]

It’s the holiday season, and while 2020 means many traditions will be either virtual or put on hold until next year, there’s one aspect of the happiest time of year that won’t change: holiday scams.

Whether you’re shopping online for gifts, donating to charities, or using your debit card in stores, there are plenty of opportunities for scammers and criminals to take advantage of you this time of year.

And, as the FBI points out, the surge in people shopping online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic means scammers will have access to more potential victims than ever. Fortunately, you can take a few relatively easy steps to help keep yourself safe while shopping both online or in person.

Pay with your smartphone or credit card

It’s a mistake to pay for goods with your debit card, either online or in stores. That’s because your debit card is connected to your checking account. And if a scammer is able to copy your card number, or access it online, they can drain all of your cash with ease. And while your bank may restore your money, doing so will take time, leaving you high and dry for at least a day or two.

A shop assistant uses an eftpos system at a Specialty Fashion Group owned Katies store in Sydney December 11, 2012. Australia is being invaded by a swathe of foreign retailers, piling pressure on a local industry already battered by weak consumer spending and ruthless internet competition. Picture taken December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA - Tags: BUSINESS FASHION)
Paying for your holiday gifts with your debit card can open you up to payment scams. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Your credit card is far more secure, because, while it can also be copied, a thief or scammer that uses it isn’t actually taking your money, but the credit card company’s. In that case, the card provider will work with you to resolve the issue, while still leaving your money in your checking account where it belongs.

You can add an additional layer of security to the process by using your smartphone’s contactless payment option in tandem with your credit card, whether that’s Google (GOOG, GOOGL) Pay, Apple (AAPL) Pay, or Samsung Pay. Such services use a unique identifier number when you tap to pay that makes it incredibly difficult to skim your card.

Avoid buying directly through social media sites or emails

Chances are you’ll see plenty of outrageously good deals on everything from TVs to new cars being advertised across social media and your email inbox. But before you click that link, take a deep breath, because you could be setting yourself up to be ripped off.

Email scams are nothing new — crooks have been using them for years to swindle people out of their hard-earned cash. But they’ve become far more sophisticated. Better spelling and grammar and realistic corporate logos make email scams more difficult to detect than they used to be.

What’s more, clicking a link in a scammer’s email could lead you to unknowingly download malware that could steal your information or even lock down your computer for ransom.

Social media scams, meanwhile, can bilk you out of your money by promising to ship you goods, and never delivering.

The best way to avoid falling victim to these types of schemes is to visit a retailer’s actual website. It’s an additional step, but it could mean the difference between losing a few hundred dollars and getting the gift you wanted.

Watch for delivery scams

With so many people ordering gifts online this year, delivery scams are sure to take off like never before. These types of fraud typically include criminals sending out emails to people claiming they missed a package delivery or that their goods are on the way, but the carrier needs more information.

The crooks will fire off emails claiming to be from any number of shipping companies and in some cases e-commerce giants like Amazon (AMZN), hoping that you did order something and are waiting for it to come in. Then, when you see that message telling you your order has been delayed, the criminals hope you’ll click on the included link. And that’s where they get you.

A man types into a keyboard during the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on July 29, 2017. REUTERS/Steve Marcus
A man types into a keyboard during the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on July 29, 2017. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

That link will either install malware on your computer, or take you to a website that asks you to enter your personal information, which the scammers will, naturally, steal.

To avoid this, your best bet is to visit the website from which you ordered your item and check your delivery status. You can also mouse over the link in the message to determine if it actually points you to the website it promises, though even that can be risky, since criminal organizations can set up fake websites that are just slightly misspelled, hoping you’ll overlook the error.

You can also use the tracking number that you received when you first put in your order and type it into Google, which will provide you with the tracking page and information.

Know what charities you’re giving to

In the giving spirit this holiday season? You’re not alone, and fraudsters know it. Con artists are known to set up fake charity websites or make unsolicited phone calls during the holidays looking to separate people from their cash by abusing their good will. And with so many people in need due to the pandemic, and a new $300 tax incentive for non-itemized filers in 2021, plenty of people are looking to give this year.

Your best bet is to avoid giving during unwanted phone calls, and tell the person on the other end of the line that you’ll visit their website instead.

As for those websites, you’ll want to ensure you’re giving to an actual charity. Fortunately, websites like CharityWatch can help you determine if you’re giving to a true organization or a front.

If it’s too good to be true…

This is the part you’re probably not going to like, because, well, it’s a bummer. But if you come across a deal online that’s too good to be true, it likely is. Scammers will try to get you to pay up quickly with promises of limited-time deals hoping you won’t give something you see in your email or on a phony website a second thought. But that’s exactly how you lose your money.

It’s always worth taking a second or two to consider whether what’s being offered is a real deal, or not. That doesn’t just apply to fraudsters, either. Even if you’re shopping at a major retailer, you’ll want to read the fine print on any deals. Because if they’re promising you the world on the cheap, it’s probably not the kind of deal you want.

Happy shopping!

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