9 Ways to Protect Yourself from Holiday Shopping Scams

With most of the year under our belt, the holiday season is just around the corner. No matter what you celebrate, this season is full of food, celebrating and spending time with loved ones.

While you’re hard at work prepping for the holiday season, scammers are too. A survey conducted by Experian found that a full 1 in 4. Americans have been a victim of identity theft or fraud in the holiday season. If you’re worried about scammers this year, don’t worry—we’ve got tips on how to look for holiday shopping scams this season.

Common Holiday Shopping Scams

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, COVID-19 scams became a popular method for criminals to get access to your information and steal your identity. However, the holidays are when these scammers go into overdrive, meaning it’s important to be extra cautious as you do your online shopping and holiday giving. Here are some of the most common holiday shopping scams to be aware of.

Illegitimate Charities

Many people use the holidays as a reason to be a bit more generous, but be careful before you make that donation. Many scammers create fake charities in an attempt to get you to donate. They get your money—and possibly access to your identity info—and no good ever comes from that generosity. 

Check for social media presence, news stories, financial records and proof that any charity you’re considering donating to actually exists and has a good reputation.

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Fake Online Stores

Online shopping is a convenient way to check off all the items on your list without having to actually brave the holiday crowds. However, it’s important to ensure that the sites you’re shopping from are actually legitimate. Scammers create fake online storefronts—sometimes even mimicking well-known retailers—and you don’t know it’s fake until the merchandise never comes or you start seeing evidence of identity fraud.

Empty Gift Cards

Gift cards are the perfect choice if you’re not sure what someone on your gift-giving list wants or if they like to pick out items themselves. But selling gift cards that have a $0 balance or have already expired is a common and remarkably easy scam. This happens most often on local sales sites, such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

Email Scams

Have you ever gotten an email about something you bought online—but you never actually purchased anything from that retailer? Maybe the email said you needed to reset your password or gave you a link to track your package. These are phishing email scams designed to get you to enter your personal info so scammers can use it for identity theft.

Shipping Problems

One of the biggest worries that comes with online shopping—especially with the supply chain issues that have come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—is whether the gifts will arrive on time. Criminals capitalize on this fear by sending out emails, texts and other communications letting you know there’s been an issue with your package. You’re asked to provide personal information such as your address, credit card info and birth date to confirm your order, but all you’re really doing is giving scammers the information they need to steal your identity.

9 Ways to Protect Yourself From Holiday Shopping Scams

While the holidays are a common time for shopping scams, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it. Learn what to look for and how to protect yourself from identity theft with these tips.

1. Pay Attention to Website URLs

Online searches can lead you to scammer-run websites that unleash computer malware or collect credit card numbers for identity theft. Carefully read website domain names. Watch for unfamiliar vendors or missing letters, misspellings or other tweaks to the name of a legitimate company. Pay special attention to the last letters. For example, tiffanyco.mn indicates a Mongolia-based website, not the legitimate website for Tiffany & Co., tiffany.com.

2. Make Sure the Site Is Legitimate

Before ordering, check the “Contact Us” page for a phone number and physical address and the “Terms and Conditions” link detailing return policies and such. Unlike legitimate vendors, bogus websites are less likely to post these—or they’ll provide them in a suspicious manner, such as via a faxed request only.

How do you know if a holiday website is legit? Check the Better Business Bureau as well as Facebook and Google reviews before you buy from a new place. If the business doesn’t have any social media or online presence other than the website, that’s a red flag. 

3. Only Buy Gift Cards From Retailers

Buy gift cards directly from the retailer and avoid shopping for discount gift cards through local swap sites. You may also want to buy gift cards online or from the checkout instead of the display racks, which are less secure. Fraudsters can peel off stickers to glean gift card codes, replace them in envelopes and wait for an unsuspecting shopper to buy them. Once purchased and activated, they enter stolen codes at the retailer’s website to make online purchases—leaving the intended recipient with a useless card.

4. Look for HTTPS Sites

When buying online, check the URL to see whether the website starts with “http://” or “https://.” The “S” is for “secure” and is your best bet for safe shopping. Some legitimate retailers may use http sites, but your information is much more vulnerable to attack in this case because it’s easier for hackers to get to it. Even with a secure page, avoid using public Wi-Fi hotspots for online shopping or other financial transactions.

5. Use Prepaid Gift Cards for Online Shopping

Consider buying prepaid cards for online shopping instead of using your actual debit or credit card. These cards are often reloadable for ease of use, and if your information does happen to be stolen, hackers will only have access to the amount on the card and not your entire bank account.

6. Take Care on Craigslist

On Craigslist or when answering local classified ads, deal only with sellers who provide a phone number you can verify. Don’t rely solely on email correspondence. Assume any request for wire-transfer payment is a scam, and be suspicious of prepaid debit card transactions. Using PayPal or a credit card is your safest bets.

7. Avoid Deals That Seem Too Good to Be True

Stay clear of prices from private sellers that seem too good to be true or are tied to hard-luck stories, such as a need to sell quickly because of divorce or military deployment. No one is selling the latest gaming console for only $50, no matter how hard up they are. These are common scams to get advance payment—and you’ll likely get no merchandise.

8. Don’t Open Holiday E-Cards From People You Don’t Know

Delete E-Cards or general holiday emails if you don’t know the sender. These mass-sent greetings likely contain malware. Legitimate card notifications should include a confirmation code to safely open the card at the issuing website.

9. Beware of Undeliverable Package Emails

Avoid emails claiming that FedEx, UPS, DHL or the U.S. Postal Service has an undeliverable package with links for details. The links will install malware that can log keystrokes to steal computer files and passwords. Unless you previously provided an email address, courier services won’t contact you this way. This scam baits you to call for details—at which point you’ll be tricked into making an expensive overseas call or revealing your personal and financial information. Look up the callback number yourself if you’re curious.

Enjoy Holiday Shopping This Year—But Be Careful

Gearing up for the holidays? Go ahead and enjoy your holiday shopping this year. Just be a little careful—keep an eye out for anything suspicious and make sure that any website you buy from is legitimate.

If you’re worried that you might already be a victim of identity theft or just want to keep a closer eye on your credit, ExtraCredit can help you know what’s going on with your credit report and spot identity theft as soon as it happens.

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