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4 Online Shopping Scams to Avoid This Holiday Season

There’s good reason the holidays are widely considered to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” During this season of joy, Americans’ generous spirits tend to shine especially bright and people seem to open their hearts — and their wallets — a little more readily than usual.

The resulting boost in consumer spending, of course, represents one of the most lucrative times of the year for retailers. In fact, many attribute the name of the nation’s biggest shopping holiday, Black Friday, to the opportunity it gives retailers to boost annual profits and, for many retail businesses, to move from being “in the red” (operating at a loss) to being “in the black” (making profits on the year).

But the holiday shopping season also has a dark side — the increase in consumer shopping and spending it brings presents a big opportunity for the scammers among us. In fact, according to ACI Worldwide, a leading global provider of electronic payment solutions, last year’s peak holiday shopping season between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday was expected to bring a nearly 15 percent increase in fraud attempts.

This holiday season, consumers should be on their toes and keep an eye out for these four holiday hoaxes:

Package theft 

While not technically an online shopping scam, porch pirates are a year-round problem. In fact, according to estimates, nearly 25 million packages a year don’t make it to their intended recipients each year because they’re stolen from the doorstep after delivery. And these thieves tend to be most active during the holiday season, when more packages than usual land on porches as a result of online orders. To combat this problem, when placing their online orders, consumers can ask that a signature be required upon package delivery or have packages sent to the workplace or a set carrier pickup location rather than to the home. Further, with FTC Security’s Total Connect home-automation system, homeowners can know when a package arrives by using their video doorbell camera, then unlock their door so that the package can be safely placed inside before re-locking it after delivery.

Fake websites and apps

When a deal seems too good to be true, it often is. Consumers should beware of buying from websites they’re unfamiliar with, as some of these are run by imposters who will accept payment — or even steal users’ credit card info — only to deliver cheap counterfeit goods or nothing at all. Shoppers should be extra wary of businesses that list no physical address or phone number on their websites, as well as sites that lack a return policy. Further, when buying, shoppers should ensure that any page on which they enter their payment info has a web address that begins with “https” (the “s” stands for “secure”), and steer clear of any offers requiring payment via wire transfer or debit card. Also, when downloading apps, consumers should be on the lookout for potentially bogus apps that might mimic well-known retailers or brands but are actually attempting to steal user info. Some telltale signs of the fake versions include misspellings or missing letters in app descriptions or logos, a scarcity or lack of app reviews, and being brand new or recently added to the app store.

Freebie fraud

It can be hard for consumers to resist a free offer and thieves can use this to their advantage. Consumers should be skeptical of any pitches touting freebies they receive via email, text message or social media post. And they should be especially wary of any “free” offers requiring credit card info for “shipping costs” or a “deposit.” To confirm an offer’s legitimacy, shoppers can check the business’s website or call its physical location first — if the site shows no signs of the offer and personnel at the business are unaware of it, it’s likely too good to be true.

Bogus charities

Some scammers try to take advantage of consumers’ giving spirit during the holiday season by setting up or touting fake charities that pose as legitimate ones. Before donating to any unfamiliar charity, it’s best to verify the group’s legitimacy by calling the Better Business Bureau or by using its charity-checking website org. Gift-givers can also help ensure their donation goes to the right place by contacting a physical branch of the charity they’re contributing to or by visiting the charity’s official website to donate, rather than giving out info to an unexpected caller, for example. Also, givers should be careful to look for slight deviations in charity names, as tricksters sometimes tout organizations with familiar-sounding names that are just slightly different from the actual group’s name.

In addition to being on the lookout for the above-mentioned scams, consumers can also make a regular practice of taking these precautions to avoid becoming victims of fraud:

  • Regularly check bank and credit card statements for unfamiliar activity.
  • Stick with known and reputable sources when making purchases.
  • Learn to recognize spam emails and avoid responding to them or clicking links within them.
  • Be wary of providing personal information to people who call on the phone or make contact via email. Rather, directly call companies’ verified phone numbers to provide any needed info.
  • Beware of email attachments and always scan them for viruses before opening them.

For more information about staying secure on the internet year-round, check out the FTC News & Blog page, where you can find helpful security-related articles such as 5 Tips for Stronger Passwords, Security and Security Answers and 4 Important Steps to Take Before Selling a Computer.