Personal Finance

8 Holiday Scams to Watch Out for This Season

From copycat sites to fake charities, holiday scammers are looking for you to give generously.

The holidays are a busy time—shopping for gifts, decorating, entertaining friends and family. You’re often stretched in several directions and have your hands full with last-minute preparations. The last thing that’s on your mind: being on high alert for holiday scams.

This is exactly what holiday scammers prey on—this inattention—to swindle potential victims. “Most scams are just the same old thing, repackaged,” said Katherine Hutt, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau. And while many of us believe older people are the most susceptible to scams, this isn't always the case.

“Our data shows that younger people are more likely to be scammed,” Hutt said. “Older people tend to lose more money, but younger people are actually more susceptible.” Why? Simply put, we all believe ourselves to be savvy, but that thinking is what makes us “more likely to be vulnerable to it,” she says.

According to Hutt, scammers are opportunists who take advantage of whatever’s going on in the world and what’s in the news to get one over on potential victims. The holidays are a prime time for scammers who try to take advantage of the season of giving (and shopping) by taking your personal information and defrauding you. So be on the lookout for these popular holiday scams.

Scam #1: Copycat sites

Retailers send out a slew of marketing emails during the holiday shopping season, and you probably have a heap of them in your inbox already. But some of these emails might not come from legitimate stores, and the sites they link to could be dangerous—even if they look like the real thing. Sometimes, a link in an email may appear to lead to a website you recognize, but in reality, it will take you to a look-alike website that scammers have built to harvest your credit card information or install malware on your computer.

In one example of website fraud, the Federal Trade Commission recently seized nine copycat websites that posed as U.S. military recruitment sites—and then collected and sold users’ personal info.

To identify scams, hover over the links in emails to see where they’re really sending you and take a close look at the sender’s email address to see if it’s truly from the retailer in question. Check the email address for misspellings and other mistakes that indicate it's a fake. And when in doubt, the safest way to visit a website is to open a browser and type in the web address yourself.

“When placing an order, always look for ‘https’ in the address bar, signifying it’s a secure page,” said Robert Siciliano, security analyst with Hotspot Shield. “Scammers generally won’t take the time to set up secure sites. Note the closed padlock in your browser to back up the https.” If the site you’re on is missing these details, close your browser immediately.

Scam #2: Fake charities

People typically feel generous this time of year—not to mention reap the benefits from tax write-offs before Dec. 31—which make it a popular time to give to charities. Charities know this and frequently reach out during the holiday season, but so do holiday scammers.

One such charity called Help the Vets took in $20 million from 2014 to 2017—and ended up using more than 95% of donations for its own operating costs before getting caught by the FTC.

Not interested in being Scrooged this Christmas? Watch out for sound-alike charity names and always check out your charity of choice at Give.org, a website that maintains a list of legitimate charities. If your charity isn't listed, it’s probably safer to pass on it. It’s also a good move to read the charity’s website and research how they spend your donation.

Scam #3: Help wanted

Taking on some part-time work around the holidays is a great way to earn some extra income. But sometimes, fraudulent “recruiters” will ask you to shell out cash to get access to these jobs—or use the scam to get personal information from you.

To avoid these scammers, apply for part-time seasonal work in person or by visiting a retailer’s site directly rather than following links. You can also use a reputable online job board, such as Snag or Season Workers. Be cautious of anyone who asks you for personal information over the phone or online before meeting, and avoid jobs that involve up-front costs for equipment or software.

Scam #4: Attempted package delivery

Did you receive an email about a shipping notification—but you aren’t sure what shipped? Be wary. Similar to copycat sites, scammers often use fake shipping notification emails (that look quite real) to lure you into clicking a link and sharing your personal information with them.

To identify a fake alert, know that most retailers will send you a shipping confirmation email immediately after placing an order—including a tracking number (so you can confirm the location of your items) and an itemized list of your order. If you don't recognize the items listed, or if you don't remember placing any order in the first place, avoid clicking any links until you've verified with your family that nobody else has placed an order under your account. Under no circumstances should you agree to pay a shipping company extra money to get your delivery, and you should never be required to provide personal information, such as your credit card number or birth date, with a shipping company to secure delivery.

Another variation of this scam: Sometimes holiday scammers will leave a bogus shipping receipt on your door, saying they tried to deliver a package but couldn’t because no one was home. The notice often contains a phone number you’re meant to call for more details. Double check the number on the shipping company’s website to confirm legitimacy—otherwise you could be giving your personal information to a fraudster.

Scam #5: Grandparent scams

In this holiday scam, seniors receive a phone call from a scammer posing as a grandchild or other family member, claiming that they’re in trouble or they’ve had an accident. They usually ask grandma or grandpa to send money immediately. If you think this sounds farfetched, in 2017, nearly one in five people who said they’d fallen for an imposter scam lost money—to the tune of $328 million in total, according to the FTC.

If this happens, call the family member or another close relative directly to confirm whether the situation is really happening. And be suspicious any time someone contacts you and asks you to wire money.

Scam #6: Social media gift exchanges

Have you ever seen a gift exchange that suggests that you can buy one gift, mail it out and then receive several gifts in exchange? Skip it. Some gift exchanges are legitimate, but many are considered pyramid schemes and they’re illegal.

One to avoid: The Secret Sister Gift Exchange, according to the Better Business Bureau. While the scam has been exposed in the past, it still pops up every year, so if you see friends or family posting about it on Facebook this year, you might want to warn them.

Really, any setup that claims that you’ll send something out and get back more than you put in is probably too good to be true. “The U.S. Postal Service considers them illegal gambling,” says a BBB report. “That applies whether you get the request via postal mail, email or social media.”

Scam #7: E-cards and letters from Santa

Looking to get a letter “from Santa” sent to your kids? There are businesses that legitimately do this, but there are also Christmas scams that use this business model to harvest your information and potentially charge your credit card.

Be wary of unsolicited emails that offer special prices for letters from Santa or that claim you’ve got only a few hours to cash in on the deal. And if you want to purchase this type of letter for your kids, visit bbb.org to see a list of legitimate companies that offer this service.

Scam #8: Free gift cards

Retailers offer a variety of deals around the holidays, and you may receive emails offering a free gift card if you click the link or make a purchase. Beware: The link could lead to a site that asks for your personal information (and then sells it) or downloads malware to your computer. Use the same tips recommended above, such as verifying that the email address and URL of the company are spelled correctly, before taking part in any offer.

Be cautious, too, when it comes to purchasing discounted gift cards from a third party. “I once purchased a $500 Best Buy gift card from a seller on Craigslist,” said Milad Hassibi, director of content for CrediReady. “After meeting with the seller of the gift card, I was able to validate the amount and paid the seller $300 for this $500 gift card. Once I was home 25 minutes later, the gift card had been wiped empty. The seller had written down the card information and made a purchase the second after they sold it.”

In general, be cautious every time you get any email that asks you to click on a link. “Common sense says any time you receive an offer via an email, automatically be suspect,” Siciliano said. “The same goes with offers via tweets and messages received in any social media. Scammers are committing social media identity theft every day.”

Kate Ashford

Kate Ashford is a writer and content creator who specializes in personal finance, careers, health and consumer trends. Her work has appeared online at the BBC, Forbes, Monster and LearnVest, as well as in national publications, including Money, Parents, Family Circle and Women's Health.