Unwrapping Some of the Holiday Season’s Biggest Scams

Tips & Advice

Even with the holidays in full swing, scammers won’t let up. In fact, it’s high time for some of their nastiest cons as people travel, donate to charities, and simply try to enjoy their time with friends and family. 

Unfortunate as it is, scammers see this time of year as a tremendous opportunity to profit. While people focus giving to others, they focus on taking, propping up all manner of scams that use the holidays as a disguise. So as people move quickly about their day, perhaps with a touch of holiday stress in the mix, they hope to catch people off their guard with scams that wrap themselves in holiday trappings. 

Yet once you know what to look for, they’re relatively easy to spot. The same scams roll out every year, sometimes changing in appearance yet remaining the same in substance. With a sharp eye, you can steer clear of them. 

Watch out for these online scams this holiday season 

1. Shopping scams 

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the books, we can look forward to what’s next—a wave of post-holiday sales events that will likewise draw in millions of online shoppers. And just like those other big shopping days, bad actors will roll out a host of scams aimed at unsuspecting shoppers. Shopping scams take on several forms, which makes this a topic unto itself, one that we cover thoroughly in our Black Friday & Cyber Monday shopping scams blog. It’s worth a read if you haven’t done so already, as digs into the details of these scams and shows how you can avoid them.  

However, the high-level advice for avoiding shopping scams is this: keep your eyes open. Deals that look too good to be true likely are, and shopping with retailers you haven’t heard of before requires a little bit of research to determine if their track record is clean. In the U.S., you can turn to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for help with a listing of retailers you can search simply by typing in their names. You can also use https://whois.domaintools.com to look up the web address of the shopping site you want to research. There you can see its history and see when it was registered. A site that was registered only recently may be far less reputable than one that’s been registered for some time. 

2. Tech support scams  

Plenty of new tech makes its way into our homes during the holiday season. And some of that tech can be a little challenging to set up. Be careful when you search for help online. Many scammers will establish phony tech support sites that aim to steal funds and credit card information. Go directly to the product manufacturer for help. Often, manufacturers will offer free support as part of the product warranty, so if you see a site advertising support for a fee, that could be a sign of a scam. 

Likewise, scammers will reach out to you themselves. Whether through links from unsolicited emails, pop-up ads from risky sites, or by spammy phone calls, these scammers will pose as tech support from reputable brands. From there, they’ll falsely inform you that there’s something urgently wrong with your device and that you need to get it fixed right now—for a fee. Ignore these messages and don’t click on any links or attachments. Again, if you have concerns about your device, contact the manufacturer directly. 

3. Travel scams 

With the holidays comes travel, along with all the online booking and ticketing involved. Scammers will do their part to cash in here as well. Travel scams may include bogus emails that pose as reputable travel sites telling you something’s wrong with your booking. Clicking a link takes you to a similarly bogus site that asks for your credit card information to update the booking—which then passes it along to the scammer so they can rack up charges in your name. Other travel scams involve ads for cut-rate lodging, tours, airfare, and the like, all of which are served up on a phony website that only exists to steal credit card numbers and other personal information. 

Some of these scams can look quite genuine, even though they’re not. They’ll use cleverly disguised web addresses that look legitimate, but aren’t, so don’t click any links. If you receive notice about an issue with your holiday travel, contact the company directly to follow up. Also, be wary of ads with unusually deep discounts or that promise availability in an otherwise busy season or time. These could be scams, so stick with reputable booking sites or with the websites maintained by hotels and travel providers themselves. 

4. Fake charity scams 

Donations to an organization or cause that’s close to someone’s heart make for a great holiday gift, just as they offer you a way to give back during the holiday season. And you guessed it, scammers will take advantage of this too. They’ll set up phony charities and apply tactics that pressure you into giving. As with so many scams out there, any time an email, text, direct message, or site urges you into immediate action—take pause. Research the charity. See how long they’ve been in operation, how they put their funds to work, and who truly benefits from them.  

Likewise, note that there some charities pass along more money to their beneficiaries than others. As a general rule of thumb, most reputable organizations only keep 25% or less of their funds for operations, while some less-than-reputable organizations keep up to 95% of funds, leaving only 5% for advancing the cause they advocate. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a site full of resources so that you can make your donation truly count. Resources like Charity Watch and Charity Navigator, along with the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance can also help you identify the best charities. 

5. Online betting scams 

The holidays also mean a flight of big-time sporting events, and with the advent of online betting in many regions scammers want to cash in. This scam works quite like shopping scams, where bad actors will set up online betting sites that look legitimate. They’ll take your bet, but if you win, they won’t pay out. Per the U.S. Better Business Bureau (BBB), the scam plays out like this: 

“You place a bet, and, at first, everything seems normal. But as soon as you try to cash out your winnings, you find you can’t withdraw a cent. Scammers will make up various excuses. For example, they may claim technical issues or insist on additional identity verification. In other cases, they may require you to deposit even more money before you can withdraw your winnings. Whatever you do, you’ll never be able to get your money off the site. And any personal information you shared is now in the hands of scam artists.” 

You can avoid these sites rather easily. Stick with the online betting sites that are approved by your regional gambling commission. Even so, be sure to read the fine print on any promo offers that these sites advertise because even legitimate betting sites can freeze accounts and the funds associated with them based on their terms and conditions. 

Further protection from scams 

A complete suite of online protection software, such as McAfee+ Ultimate can offer layers of extra security. In addition to more private and secure time online with a VPN, identity monitoring, and password management, it includes web browser protection that can block malicious and suspicious links that could lead you down the road to malware or a phishing scam—which antivirus protection can’t do alone. Additionally, we offer $1M identity theft coverage and support from a recovery pro, just in case. 

And because scammers use personal information such as email addresses and cell phone numbers to wage their attacks, other features like our  Personal Data Cleanup service can scan high-risk data broker sites for your personal information and then help you remove it, which can help reduce spam, phishing attacks, and deny bad actors the information they need to commit identity theft. 

Scammers love a good thing—and will twist it for their own benefit. 

That’s why they enjoy the holidays so much. With all our giving, travel, and charity in play, it’s prime time for their scams. Yet a little insight into their cons, along with some knowledge as to how they play out, you can avoid them.  

Remember that they’re playing into the hustle and bustle of the season and that they’re counting on you to lower your guard more than you might during other times of the year. Keep an eye open for the signs, do a little research when it’s called for, and stick with reputable stores, charities, and online services. With a thoughtful pause and a second look, you can spare yourself the grief of a scam and fully enjoy your holidays. 

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