Whether you're a Black Friday fan or a last-minute shopper, the holidays are probably a busy time for you. It's also a busy — and profitable — time for scammers.
Scammers can drain gift cards, reel you in with too-good-to-be-true social media ads and send fake delivery notifications that take away more than your holiday cheer. Here's how to watch out for some of the most common scams this holiday shopping season.
Porch pirates aren't the only problem
People send and receive lots of packages during the holidays, and porch pirates aren't the only ones taking notice. A recent AARP survey of U.S. adults found that 29% have received a fake notification about a shipment issue. These texts or emails do more than get your hopes up for a package that doesn't exist.
"What they're trying to do is get you to click on a link, go to a page that looks like FedEx or UPS, but it's really not," said AARP fraud prevention director Kathy Stokes. "You're logging in credentials, you're logging in payment information — whatever you're logging in there, they're stealing."
If you get an unexpected text about a delivery and want to see if it's real, Stokes recommends looking for contact information on the package carrier's official website.
Major package carriers like FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service will often let you sign up to get delivery updates, but they won't text you out of the blue. With your personal information at stake, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Your payment method matters
When you're shopping online, think twice about how you're paying. Credit cards are considered safer for online payment than debit cards, because they have more protections in case of fraud.
Gift cards pose another set of issues. AARP's survey found 26% of respondents have given or received a gift card, only to find out there's no money on it.
"A lot of people don't know this, but scammers can go into a store, take the cards off the rack, record the information of the back and just wait for them to get sold so they can drain them," Stokes said.
If you're buying a gift card at the store, experts recommend checking to see if the back of the card has been tampered with to reveal the PIN. Scammers can also find ways to drain gift cards online, with methods like bots that input random gift card numbers and PINs. It's a good idea to redeem the gift card online sooner rather than later, giving scammers less time to steal the funds.
One thing to keep in mind year-round: Gift cards are for gifts, not payments. If someone calls and asks you to pay them with gift cards, that's a scam. Similar considerations apply to peer-to-peer payment methods like Zelle or PayPal.
That ad could make you sad
You're scrolling on your social media feed during the holiday season when you see it: The perfect gift you've been looking for, and at a great price! So you rush to buy it, entering your payment information. You might not suspect a problem until, three weeks later, your package still hasn't arrived.
"A lot of these fake websites will pop up, they'll get a couple of consumers to give up their information, and then they're gone," said Better Business Bureau public relations director Melanie McGovern.
Shady websites can send you low-quality goods that aren't as advertised, scam you by not delivering the product at all, or even steal your information.
According to a report from the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, Americans lost more than $337 million to non-payment or non-delivery scams in 2021. The FBI says internet scam reports spike in the first months of each year, suggesting that the holidays are a bad time to be careless with your financial information.
"You really want to do those checks and make sure that that website is legitimate," McGovern said. "If the website looks a little off, if it's claimed to be an established retailer, just check out that URL. One letter mistake could take you down a rabbit hole of fake websites — you really want to be careful."
The big picture
Whether it's the holiday season or not, scamming is a profitable industry that evolves fast — and anyone can fall victim. AARP's survey found that 81% of respondents aged 18 to 34 had experienced some kind of fraud, while that number went down to 69% for those 65 and older.
"Most people believe that scams disproportionately target older adults," Stokes said. "And in fact, that's not true at all. More younger people experience losing money from scams than older people. But the catch is if you're an older adult, you have more to lose."
Basic cybersecurity measures like updating your computer or phone's system when prompted and using antivirus software can go a long way. It's also a good idea to stay organized.
"Keep a list and just keep track so it's easier to figure out if something went wrong and how to remedy it," McGovern said.