Generations of people have passed down the old adage “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” However, even with that sage wisdom to build on, many people every year still fall victim to scammers. The holiday season, it seems, is a ripe time for these predatory practices to lure in thousands of unwary merry-makers.
These scams take on various forms, and can be set up to steal your identity or income, making for a very un-Merry Christmas.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations notes that two of the most-used holiday scams are non-delivery and non-payment scams. These include buying an item or service online and never receiving it, and selling a good or service online and never being compensated for it. In 2020, these types of scams cost victims more than $265 million, with another $129 million lost to credit card fraud.
Other types of online-shopping related scams include gift card fraud, where a seller requires payment with a pre-paid card such as gift or iTunes cards, and auction fraud, where a seller on an auction site like eBay will misrepresent the item being sold.
How You Can Avoid Being a Victim
The easiest, and perhaps most obvious advice, is not to click on email attachments or links from sites or people that you don’t know or trust. This can lead to phishing, where the link takes you to a site that requires you to input your personal information such as your name, bank account number, or social security number. This type of personal information should never be shared with strangers on the internet. These types of links could also lead to malicious software (malware) being downloaded onto your device.
Another common scam of this sort will lead you via link to a website that may appear to be the site of a common seller, where you’ll be prompted to update your log-in information or password. If you’re unsure if you’re dealing with a legitimate site, consider looking up the contact information for the retailer in question and updating your information over the phone. Commonly, you can tell whether or not the site is legitimate by looking at the web address. If the site has https in the address, it’s most likely fine. If not, be wary of giving it your personal information.
Check the feedback ratings of websites, as well as buyers and sellers on auction sites. If they have low ratings, be wary. Also, many sites will post favorable feedback from bot accounts, making themselves seem like they’re more reputable. If many of the reviews have similar text or spelling errors, they may be trying to cover themselves in a façade of false ratings.
If you are buying on an auction website and the seller claims to reside in the U.S., but says they are out of the country when responding to your questions, be aware that this may be an overseas scammer trying to bait you in. Also, any buyer who wants you to ship their purchase using any method to avoid customs or taxes should raise suspicion.
When paying for purchases online, avoid wiring money to the seller directly. Never pay for your purchases with pre-paid gift cards, especially if the seller requests that you send the gift card number and PIN. This method makes it easy to take the funds off of the card, leaving you without your money or the promised product. When using your credit card for purchases, monitor your statement and look for suspicious activity. If purchases you didn’t make pop up, contact your credit card company or bank immediately to dispute the charge and secure your account.
Many reputable vendors put tracking numbers on orders received via online retail, and will either provide this on the check-out screen, or send an email as a follow-up after the transaction. This number allows you to monitor the shipping process as your purchase comes to you, as well as giving you the security of knowing when your package is scheduled to arrive.
What to Do if You’ve Already Been a Victim
One of the toughest things a person has to do in these situations is admit to themselves that they’ve been scammed. It doesn’t make your stupid or gullible, and you mustn’t feel like you’ll be judged if you admit it.
If you believe you’ve been the victim of a scam, the FBI recommends the following steps:
Dispute any suspicious charges with your credit card company or bank.
Contact local law enforcement.
Report the scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at ic3.gov.