As a gift-giver, there’s no better time to find discounts than during the busy holiday shopping season. Starting on Black Friday, stores across the country begin offering irresistible sales.
Though with all those purchases, refunds, and exchanges — the holiday season is also prime time for criminals. While it’s important to protect your business and your personal spending year-round, the stretch from Black Friday until New Year’s is when you’re most vulnerable (and thieves are most active).
Below are five of the most common holiday scams for which you should be on the lookout.
1. Phishing Scams
We all know not to click on Nigerian prince emails or winning sweepstakes offers. That said, what happens when you receive discounts from Netflix or Amazon in your inbox?
You likely already have relationships with these services. There are legitimate reasons to click on these offers — especially during the holiday season when your inbox is cluttered with so many other emails from retailers that you know and trust.
Don’t click anything in these messages — not even the “unsubscribe” option at the bottom.
Instead, visit the company’s site directly in your browser (e.g., Amazon.com). After logging in, look for the offer there.
2. Charity Scams
The holiday season isn’t just for shopping. It’s also for charitable giving. In fact, the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving is officially known as “Giving Tuesday.”
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of people who take advantage of all this generosity. They often set up fake charities designed to rake in contributions from unsuspecting donors.
In the past, these charity scams used high-pressure tactics to get you to donate ASAP. Modern scammers, however, are more subtle — using a much softer approach. This makes it harder to distinguish legitimate organizations from fake ones.
The good news is, you can use free databases to find and vet any charities that appear on your radar. If an organization isn’t on Give.org, Charity Check 101 or Charity Navigator — it’s best to leave it off your list.
3. Gift Exchange Scams
The “Secret Sister” scam is basically “Secret Santa” on steroids. It involves donating any gift (less than $10) — with the promise of receiving up to 36 gifts in return.
What makes this scam so deceitful is that there are actually gifts being sent and received. It’s basically a Ponzi scheme in which you put in more than you get out of it. According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (which closely monitors holiday mail traffic):
“[F]or everyone to receive what they've been promised, each layer of the pyramid must attract new recruits. It's mathematically impossible to sustain."
Participating in these gift exchange scams means parting with $10, but it also means exposing your mailing (i.e., home) address.
4. Porch Pirate Scams
Porch pirates steal an estimated 26 million packages from homes every year. All they have to do is wait until the delivery company drops a parcel off on your front stoop.
In fact, some porch pirates are delivery workers.
Protecting yourself isn’t easy. You basically have two options:
- You can install security cameras on your front porch. That’s precisely what this former NASA engineer did — with an ingenious twist.
- You can also instruct delivery workers to hold onto packages until you have a chance to pick them up later. This strategy works, but as you’ll soon see — it has some potential drawbacks.
5. Phony Shipping Notifications
There are times when delivery services notify you of incoming packages or unsuccessful drop-offs. You’re supposed to make alternative arrangements to ensure the items arrive safely.
Unfortunately, not all of these notifications are real.
Criminals will sometimes alert you by phone, email, or letter that a package is waiting or couldn’t be delivered. It’s your responsibility to contact them back:
- If the exchange happens via email, you might accidentally click on a malicious link that infects your computer.
- If the exchange occurs by phone or mail, the goal is to get you to provide personal information to help “verify” that you are the intended recipient.
Either way, that criminal has just gained access to your life.
It’s always better to contact the delivery service directly (through its website) so that you can follow up with errant packages.
We Hope You Have a Safe (and Scam-Free) Holiday Season
Covering every type of holiday scam would be impossible in an article of this length. In addition to phishing emails, charity scams, and porch pirates, there are phone scams, online scams, bank scams, and identity theft scams — all of which seem to grow in frequency and severity around the holidays.
However, we hope this partial list helps make your life a little easier.