7 Tips to Avoid Holiday Scams

Woman on computer with her dog in her hand.


As you’re getting a head start on holiday shopping and sales, guess what: scammers and thieves are getting ready for their own kind of season, too.

With holiday shopping expected to jump, fraudsters will have more opportunities to dish out sneaky holiday scams.

Here are seven tips to help you protect yourself from online shopping and holiday scams and keep your finances personal this season.

1. If Black Friday Deals Look Too Good …

Nowadays, Black Friday sales can stretch beyond a week, and retailers are eager to offer discounts. But be cautious of web or social media advertisements offering name-brand products at deep discounts. Black Friday scams are growing, and such extreme discounts and products might be tied to fraudulent retailers.

According to the Better Business Bureau, consumers who purchase items from fraudulent sites often find themselves victims of a Black Friday delivery scam – they never receive the items they pay for or receive a cheap counterfeit version.

Meanwhile, the scammers gain access to your personal and credit information, password history, and more.

So if you’re seeing the promise of dramatic discounts on the brands you know and love, then proceed with caution. An 80% discount could be a holiday rip-off instead of a holiday miracle.

2. Be cautious of auction and marketplace sites

Do your due diligence and check reviews and ratings of any auction or marketplace sites. Just like too-good-to-be-true deals, these sites can be rife with scams and counterfeit items.

You’ll also want to further research specific sellers. It’s a general rule of thumb to avoid sellers with poor ratings or brand-new sellers with few or no ratings at all.

3. Avoid Phishing Scams and don’t click direct links in emails and texts

According to the FTC, scammers often send phishing emails and text messages that look like they’re from a legitimate bank, credit card company, social networking site, payment website or app, or online store.

If you get an unsolicited email from a brand or organization, it’s safer to bypass the email containing the link. Scam links may direct you to fake websites or download harmful malware on your computer.

Instead, open a new browser window and go directly to that website (by typing in that site’s URL address or using your own bookmark) to log in rather than using the link provided in the email.

4. Shop on secure sites

There’s a valid, valuable movement to buy from small and independent businesses. But it’s also important to ensure you’re staying safe online.

First, check whether the website looks legitimate. Be on the lookout for word misspellings, bad grammar, no clear method of contacting the company, and no information about the company's location.

Also, make sure the site uses encryption technology for more secure transactions. Look for the small “lock” icon to the left of a website address or URL, and make sure the URL begins with “https,” rather than just “http.”  The “s” means the site is secure.

Even if websites are secure, never use a public Wi-Fi connection, like at a library or café, to transact banking or make online purchases.

You’re better off using your private mobile provider’s data network or waiting until you get home to shop on your own secure wireless network.

5. The sad reality of fake charities

Charitable giving can be a wonderful way to spread cheer during the holiday season, but you still need to be diligent.

Unfortunately, social media is rampant with funding and charity scams. For example, fraudsters can set up false GoFundMe accounts with made-up stories designed to tug on your heartstrings in an attempt to take advantage of charitable people.

Illegitimate thieves and users will use trusted platforms to fool you.  The platforms and organizations may be wonderful – but unfortunately, some people are not.

Such patron and donor platforms don’t vet each cause, so generous donors find out too late that they’ve been suckered by abusers of the sites’ good-natured intent.

If you’re looking to help those in need, first verify that the person, cause, or organization is legitimate. And remember, you can always check out organizations by donating your time first.

6. Avoid Sketchy Websites

Professional sites use professional writers — simple as that.

Watch for typos, bad grammar, and unusual English. If you find unusual punctuation use, misspellings, or bizarre wording on a website, URL, or email, it’s likely a scam. Try to find the same product offered elsewhere by a trustworthy retailer.

7. Use a secure payment method

Avoid sellers who have unusual payment requirements, like paying via wire transfers, cashier’s checks, gift cards, and prepaid cards. This could be a sign of a gift card scam.  These types of payments are almost impossible to recover, making gift card scams a great tactic for scammers.

Even popular payment apps, like Zelle and Venmo, don’t offer fraud protection. Keep in mind that these apps are linked directly to your bank account. Once the payment is sent, your money leaves your account for good. Try to limit your financial interactions on these platforms to smaller amounts, and only pay people you know or have received a good or service from.

It’s a good idea to check if your bank offers fraud protection in case you fall victim to a scam. When paying independent retailers or individuals for goods or services, you can also consider using PayPal. Doing so offers fraud protection, and enables fast and easy online financial transactions without requiring credit card information.

What to do if you’re victimized by holiday scams

If you find yourself the victim of a holiday scam, the first thing you should do is contact your bank as quickly as possible. You’ll want to alert them to the issue and see if they can help you recover your money.

Customer service or fraud agents should also be able to cancel your card or set up alerts for suspicious activity, which can help protect you from further fraudulent charges.

You can also contact local law enforcement and/or file a complaint with the FBI Consumer Fraud Department at www.ic3.gov.

Holiday Scam FAQs

  • How can I avoid online scams?

    Avoid anything that looks strange or suspicious, and only pay those you know or major retailers.  See the above article for more information on what to look for.

  • Do scams increase during holidays?
    Unfortunately, yes.  Thieves take advantage of opportunities, and the sheer volume of holiday spending is one.
  • Who falls for the most scams?

Scams affect everyone.  People of all ages and backgrounds must stay aware, shop carefully, and avoid anything that doesn’t look right.