High-profile data breaches have snagged headlines consistently throughout 2017, according to Wired, which maintains a running list of the incidents. From Uber to Equifax, to Yahoo, to Chipotle, each breach has whittled away at consumers’ confidence in cyber security, and rightly so.
But it isn’t only the big data breaches that can plague consumers financially. NBC News reports that online fraud attempts during 2016 increased by 31 percent. Scams tend to be the same throughout the year, even during the holidays, but consumers “are more apt to fall for them during the holidays,” said Donna Gregory, unit chief for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Internet Crime Complaint Center, which is known as IC3.
As scammers, who obviously don’t mind being on the “naughty list” this holiday season, have grown more cunning, there is no doubt consumers should be on high alert when making online purchases, opening electronic greeting cards or responding to Facebook posts soliciting “Secret Santas.” While the holiday season is a scammer’s favorite time of the year, even the meanest of Grinches should not leave you “Scrooged” this holiday season.
Here are some of the more prevalent scams to watch for and tips to try and avoid scammers’ traps.
Holiday Gift Exchange or Secret Santa/Secret Sister on Social Media
Social media has helped propel scams. The IC3 unit reports that “social media played a role in more than $66 million in losses [n 2016].” One of the most recent scams started popping up on social media in 2015, Forbes reported. The Holiday Gift Exchange, also known as Secret Santa or Secret Sister Gift Exchange, resurfaced in 2016 and again this year.
The viral hoax promises the unwitting that if they buy a gift for $10 or more and send it to one secret sister, they will receive 36 gifts in return. Experts say it is nothing more than an old-fashioned pyramid scheme, which is against the law and, at least for Facebook, violates the terms of a user’s agreement. They warn that sharing personal details, often encouraged by such scams, makes consumers vulnerable to identity theft and other scams.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns consumers to be aware of “too-good-to-be-true deals.” The savvy consumer should decline offers for virtual gift exchanges.
Gift Card Scams
Gift cards are at the top of 41 percent of Americans’ wish list for the 11th consecutive year, NBC News reports. They are also a hot commodity for scammers. A more recent gift card scam targets consumers through online gift card exchanges, which allow people to sell unused gift cards at a discount. Often, however, the purchaser risks not getting the card at all or getting a card that has already been used. Gift cards have unique barcodes or numbers and once someone has the numbers, they can easily drain the gift card’s value.
While there are reputable sites where consumers can purchase discounted gift cards, experts say it is still safer to purchase the card at full price from the retailer.
Those purchasing gift cards at brick-and-mortar retail stores should also beware. Thieves with inexpensive scanners can scan the barcodes of gift cards that line store shelves and kiosks. The personal finance site GoBankingRates.com recommends:
- Be suspicious of and avoid buying any gift cards that are in packaging that appears to be tampered with.
- If a retail outlet keeps its gift cards out in the open and not in any packaging, ask the clerk or manager if he has any gift cards behind the counter or in the back of the store.
- Only purchase gift cards from trusted retailers or their websites; avoid purchasing them from third-party vendors you aren’t familiar with.
Electronic Greeting Cards and other phishing emails
If electronic holiday greeting cards, or e-Cards, pop up in your inbox it may just be a fraudster’s phishing attempt. NBC News explains that while “these emails appear to be coming from any popular e-Card site” they include a malicious link that can expose a device to malware. Fraudulent e-Cards are usually not personalized to the recipient, and the sender’s email address will likely seem suspicious. The recipient can also hover the cursor over the link, without clicking, to see the website. If the link doesn’t match the purported website that is also a tell-tale sign the e-Card is fake.
The Detroit Free Press reports that two in five consumers in the U.S. become victims of online phishing attacks. The outlet warns consumers to slow down, especially when shopping online, know how to spot fake websites that mimic real retail sites, and be alert for fake email alerts.
Also, consumers report receiving email alerts about order confirmation despite not having placed an order. The alert is another phishing attempt. If a consumer receives an email, for example, from FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service claiming a package cannot be delivered, the recipient should not open any attachments or click on any links. Rather, they should consider calling the company to determine if the alert is legitimate. Consumers should also be suspicious of incoming phone calls from unknown or unsolicited sources.
Deep discounts, say 75 percent off retail price, on luxury items like Louis Vuitton handbags and Rolex watches should send up red flags rather than celebratory jubilations. While knock-off or copycat products “don’t pretend to be the real deal,” the BBB explains, “[c]ounterfeit goods mimic original merchandise, right down to the trademarked logo, but are made with inferior products and workmanship.”
Items that carry a name brand logo, smart phones and other electronics, watches, jewelry, sunglasses, auto parts, perfume and blue jeans are among commonly counterfeited products and can be sold online, by street merchants, at flea markets and even in traditional retail stores. Consumers should avoid purchasing from unknown or sketchy sellers. If a to-good-to-be-true deal is too hard to pass up, consider checking the business out on the BBB website (bbb.org) before making a purchase.
The couponing craze has boosted the demand for sites that provide users with coupon and promotional discount codes for online shopping. Experts warn that legitimate sites usually don’t require users to register personal information or buy anything to use the discounts. If a site prompts consumers to share personal information, it may be better to move along to a different, safer site.
While Grinches are working to rob wallets and steal holiday cheer, consumers can arm themselves with information about scams, slow down a little amidst the hustle and bustle and employ some common-sense defense tactics to keep them from saying, “Bah humbug,” this year.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Better Business Bureau
Detroit Free Press