Scam Warning: What You Need to Know This Holiday Season

Consumer protection, Crime, Taxes

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — particularly for scammers after your money or personal info. Online scams operate year-round, of course, but during the holidays crooks step up their operations.

They know people are are feeling generous this time of year, as well as busy, stressed, and sometimes desperate to find that one perfect gift. The combination makes for the perfect victim, but you don’t have to fall for these Grinch-like tricks. The following are some of the most common scams to watch out for this holiday season.

Offers for Free Items

If you have been on Facebook or Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen the links offering “Free iPads!” or other popular, pricey items. When you click on the link, you’re taken to a site that asks you to purchase other, inexpensive products, or fill out a survey to receive your free item. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, however — or a free iPad.

In reality, these sites exist to harvest your credit card or cell phone number. If you run across a website that asks for your cell phone number to receive your quiz results and qualify for a free item, don’t do it. There’s no contest and no winners. Instead you’ll find yourself inadvertently signing up for a service that could charge $10 a week or more to your cell phone bill.

Fake Charities

By Thanksgiving, it might seem like every street corner has suddenly sprouted a bell-ringer and a kettle. Many legitimate charities ramp up their giving campaigns during the holiday season, and this gives scammers a prime opportunity to solicit a few funds of their own. Anyone can ask for money on the street and tell you it’s for needy children or the homeless; never give money to any charity without checking them out first.

If a charity representative can’t or won’t provide you with information about specifically how the money is spent, it’s usually a warning sign the “charity” might not be legit. Always get a receipt for charitable donations to use for tax purposes. And never supply credit card or bank account information via email or phone.

Counterfeit merchandise

Watches, purses, designer clothing, and shoes. These are desirable gifts, and scammers know it. If you live in a big city you’re probably familiar with the sight of street vendors trying to pass off knock-offs as the real thing on the street. The electronic version of this scam is to sell these goods online, via sites such as eBay and Craigslist. The buyer doesn’t get to inspect the item in person until money has already changed hands, and might have no idea they’re getting a cheap counterfeit version instead of high-end merchandise.

To avoid being taken in by this scam, avoid buying online from unauthorized sellers. If a listing on an online auction site is priced far below retail, lacks detail, or uses stock photos instead of pictures of the actual item listed, chances are the deal really is too good to be true. Beware too of listings originating overseas, where many of these knock-off items originate.

Non-delivery of online purchases

Along with knock-offs, a common scam online is to sell goods that the seller has no intention of delivering. When a “hot” holiday item is in short supply, scammers can set up online shops marketing the item, collect your payment, and never deliver the goods. By the time you realize you’ve been scammed, the website has disappeared and there’s no way to trace the seller.

You can protect yourself against this and other scams by only buying from legitimate online stores, and using a credit card for online purchases. eBay also offers a certain amount of buyer protection, and if you use a credit card you can file a complaint with the card issuer if your item is not delivered. Paypal offers buyer protection under certain circumstances as well. Craigslist and many similar sites offer no guarantees and no protections, so buyer beware.