'Tis the season... for scams

From lighting the menorah and trimming the tree to celebrating Kwanzaa and the impending new year, December is a time when friends and family gather to celebrate all the joys the season brings. Unfortunately, it’s also a time of year when fraudsters roll out a cornucopia of time-tested scams to prey on consumers’ holiday habits. Read on to learn about the season’s most common scams so you can spot and avoid them.

Not-so-great holiday shopping deals.

One of the most common complaints we receive at Fraud.org involves consumers who try to take advantage of a “can’t-miss” deal online for popular merchandise, particularly in-demand items such as electronics and fashion. Online classifieds, such as Craigslist, are well-known havens for operators of unscrupulous merchandise sales websites claiming to offer high-dollar items like iPhones or Air Jordan sneakers for a fraction of the typical price. In reality, however, these websites often exist only to harvest consumers’ payment card or personal information to be used by scammers to purchase merchandise elsewhere or commit identity theft.

To reduce your risk of falling victim to bogus holiday shopping scams, consider the following steps:

  • If you see a “great” deal online, do a price-check on conventional online retailers (e.g. Amazon, Zappos, Best Buy, etc.) before you enter payment information. If the price you’re being offered is far below typical prices, it could be a scam;
  • Check out who’s behind the website you’re shopping at. Take a look at the “contact us” page. If there’s no telephone number to call, or if the number doesn’t work when you call, it could be a scam. Check out the registration details of the web domain at WHOIS.net. Is the website registered in the U.S.? Try calling the phone numbers for the domain’s administrative and technical contacts. If they don’t work, or you are routed to a domain registration company’s support line, it could be a scam.
  • Don’t shop at a website that lacks the SSL padlock. Legitimate online retailers should protect the information you share on the site with Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption. You can tell if a site uses SSL by the padlock that shows up to the left of the website’s URL in your browser’s address bar. If you don’t see the padlock, shop somewhere else.

Charity scammers prey on consumers’ best intentions.

Non-profit organizations depend on donations from supporters to help them keep the lights on. Charitable fundraising always spikes around the holidays, as consumers look to support their favorite NGOs and get in a handy tax deduction before the end of the year. Unfortunately, scammers are well aware of this trend. December is usually one of the top months that consumers complain about bogus charities that purport to support a good cause, but are in fact little more than fraudulent money-grabs.

Differentiating between a legitimate charity and a scam can be difficult, but the following tips can help you avoid supporting a charity scam:

  • If a charity calls on the phone and requests a donation, ask for information like the charity’s registered name, mailing address, and phone number. If the caller is unable or unwilling to provide that information, it could be a scam.
  • Before you donate, check out the charity online. Sites like the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance or CharityNavigator keep information on legitimate charities. If the organization soliciting a donation isn’t listed on one of those websites, it could be a scam.
  • If you receive a solicitation from a group fundraising on behalf of another organization (such as a local police or firefighter support group), be sure to ask what percentage of a donation is kept by the fundraising organization. If the caller is unable or unwilling to provide that information, or if the fee seems unusually high, it could be a scam.
  • When you do pay, make sure to pay by credit or debit card. That way, if the charity turns out to be a scam, you can dispute the charge.
  • The Federal Trade Commission has plenty more tips on spotting and avoiding charity scams here.

Gift card scams can drain your cash.

Gift cards are a favorite present during the holiday season and big business for retailers. A low-tech, but effective, scam is when fraudsters copy the codes and information on gift cards and place them back on the rack for someone else to purchase. They then periodically check online or over the phone to find out if legitimate consumers have purchased the cards and loaded funds on to them. When they get a hit, the scammers will use the codes they obtained to drain funds from the cards.

To reduce your risk from this scam, consider the following steps:

  • Examine any gift cards you intend to purchase for signs of tampering -- scratches on the card or exposed PIN numbers can be a sign that all is not right.
  • Be careful buying gift cards on online auction sites. Despite efforts to police these sites, they are known to be used by scammers to peddle counterfeit gift cards.
  • When you purchase a gift card, ask the cashier to scan the card to ensure that it has the correct balance.
  • Keep receipts for all of the gift cards you purchase. If you find out later that funds have been deducted from the card improperly, having a paper receipt can help you recover lost funds.

If you’ve spotted signs of any of these scams or, worse yet, if you or someone you know has been a victim, it is important to report it! At Fraud.org, consumers can submit complaints via our secure online complaint form. These complaints are then shared with our network of local, federal, state, and international law enforcement and consumer protection partners who can investigate.