Tis the season to be jolly, but, sadly, millions of Americans fall victim to a wide range of scams and fraud each holiday season. And the problem is only growing worse.
A majority of Americans are susceptible to holiday giving scams, with 70% of consumers failing a quiz about how to stay safe, a new survey from AARP Fraud Watch Network found.
"While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts," said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. "We're encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season."
An estimated 30 million Americans experience some type of fraud every year costing upwards of $50 billion annually, according to The Financial Fraud Research Center, a joint project of the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation.
Surprisingly, though, fraud statistics are not well kept at any level of government. The statistics that do exist are generally accepted to be a fraction of the true scope as many victims fail to report incidents out of shame and embarrassment.
Only an estimated 15 percent of the nation's fraud victims report their crimes to law enforcement, according to the United States Department of Justice.
While con-artists target victims of any age, race, gender or socioeconomic background year-round, the holiday season proves to be especially problematic. Con-artists prey on people’s generosity and trusting nature when the Spirit of Giving is running high.
How can you protect yourself from becoming a fraud victim without curtailing your holiday spirit? You simply need to be aware of the common schemes the Grinchs of the world are using this holiday season. We’ve laid out 10 of the most prevalent holiday scams and, remember, if the deal is too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.
Plenty of charities are highly active and do their best fundraising during the holidays. This fact isn’t lost on scammers as many con-artists misuse legitimate charity names or even create fictitious charities to pocket donations.
Donate only to charities you trust or that you properly vet. Charitynavigator.org is a great resource to learn more about a particular charity, how much of the donation they keep and the proper channels to give. Never donate by cash or wire transfer.
With a record number of Americans holiday shopping online, consumers must know they are shopping on an authentic website. Scammers will set-up fake websites, often resembling well known retailers, sell fake items and then shut down overnight, making them virtually untraceable.
Beware of unknown deals and offers sent to your email or on social media. If a new site seems legitimate, a quick Google search for reviews will turn up valuable information to verify the site. And whenever entering payment information into a website, make sure the URL has ‘https://’ at the beginning. This indicates your payment information is secure and encrypted.
Most Americans perceive gift cards and prepaid debit cards, wildly popular gifts during the holidays, as a safer alternative to cash. This isn’t always the case. Thieves will copy the information from gift card racks, wait until the card is activated and then drain the funds from the card.
Always buy gift cards directly from the retailer, and, if possible, purchase gift cards from a cashier. Examine the card for any tampering and don’t provide sensitive information such as Social Security numbers or bank account information.
Public, free Wi-Fi networks are as ubiquitous as smartphones, today. And many shoppers are connecting to these networks while at the mall. It’s okay to surf Facebook on a public Wi-Fi network, but hackers are setting up shop in mall food courts and siphoning off sensitive data from the Wi-Fi network when unsuspecting consumers check their bank account balance or enter their credit card information.
Again, don’t check important financial information on public networks and make online purchases from your secure, home Wi-Fi network.
Package theft is one of the oldest yet still most prominent thefts during the holidays. Millions of packages will be shipped and left on people’s doorsteps, which is an invitation for thieves to simply walk off with your prized holiday gift. While many retailers will work with victims of package theft, they are not legally responsible.
Requiring a signature upon delivery is a surefire way to protect your packages. Tracking numbers are also useful when anticipating deliveries and making yourself available.
The proliferation of mobile apps created another vehicle for identity theft. Some holiday apps are disguised as games and offered for free, but they’re designed specifically to steal your personal information.
Always be cautious when giving unknown apps access to your smartphone data or entering sensitive financial information. It’s best to do a Google search of the company offering the app and seeking out online reviews from users who have downloaded the app.
Tickets on Social Media
Tickets to theater, concerts, and sporting events are common holiday gifts, according to the FBI’s website. Excited hot ticket recipients understandably want to share their good fortune with friends and family on social media. And scammers are searching social media for ticket barcodes, counterfeiting the tickets and selling them.
Never post pictures of tickets on social media and protect the ticket’s barcode like you would a credit card. If you must share with your friends and family, post a picture of the event itself.
For millions of Americans, the holidays bring Yuletide cheer and financial stress. To relieve some of that stress, many seek additional employment during the holidays.
While seeking out holiday job opportunities, be leery of jobs that offer unreasonably high pay for easy work, require you to purchase items before working or ask for an application fee or processing fee to apply.
As old as email itself, phishing scams are emails with malicious links that transfer sensitive financial information when clicked. Scammers have created sophisticated phishing scams in recent years, emulating emails from banks and credit cards companies reporting bogus fraud activity that requires your attention.
You sound never respond to the Nigerian Prince who is holding your inheritance. Verify your friend is really is trapped in Africa and needs your aide (99.9% your friend is on his couch down the street) and never send sensitive information to your bank via email. Banks will never solicit information via email and encourage you to login to their secure websites and messaging systems.
Hot cocoa, eggnog and hot toddies are great cold weather comforts during the holidays, but they’re no substitute for a warm weather vacation to the Caribbean.
Be wary of any free Caribbean cruise sweepstakes and timeshare offers. These offers of beach bliss are the work of scammers who set-up fake travel deal websites in order to obtain your sensitive financial information. If you were a good boy or girl this year, you may find a Caribbean cruise in your stocking but most definitely not in your email.
Don’t let a Grinch steal your holiday cheer this year. Be mindful of the scams listed above and, if you have any doubt, just walk away.
If you do suspect that you’ve become a fraud victim, report the crime to your local authorities or with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Consumers may also visit the Fraud Watch Network to receive timely fraud alerts for their local area.