How to shop safely this holiday season and avoid online scams

By laura.cox

Posted in: 

November 11, 2022

The holiday season is upon us—that magical time of the year when we all think a little more about the things that matter most in life: our family, friends, and loved ones. Whether you are searching for that perfect gift for someone else, or you're finally treating yourself to that new gadget or pair of shoes you've wanted all year—there are some simple and practical steps you can take to keep your accounts and data safe when shopping online. 

The key to safeguarding your identity, credit card information, and bank accounts is understanding the main methods con artists and criminals use to scam you out of your money, accounts—and common sense! Though only $4 billion gets reported annually, "online scams" are estimated to be a $10 billion industry worldwide. There are companies with dedicated call centers whose sole responsibility is to scam unsuspecting victims out of as much personal data as they can get from them.   

1.    Don’t trust your email. 

It's the holiday season and you open your email to find a coupon, offer, or advertisement that is too good to pass up! Avoid your natural inclination to click anything in these types of emails. As a general rule, no matter who you think these sorts of emails are from—including Amazon or your family—it would be in your better interest to refrain from opening any links, or clicking on any pictures you receive in these. Instead, close the email you were reading, open a new web browser page, and use Google to go to the official website page that sent you the coupon or sale offer. Scammers and criminals know that if they use a trusted brand like Amazon, eBay, or Target.com, you will be more likely to "click before you think" and enter your bank or credit card information on a webpage that looks real, but is actually fake. 

2.    Don’t use your main bank’s debit or credit card to shop. 

Using your main banking debit card or credit card to shop online—or pay for anything online—is never a good idea. If you make a mistake when shopping online this holiday season, the last thing you want to happen is to fall victim to an internet scam, leaving your entire savings or bank account at risk.  

There are several easy ways to protect your main account details when shopping online—we recommend installing Cash App or PayPal. Both platforms are free to use, but Cash App is simpler for those who don't know, or can’t be bothered with knowing very much about computers and technology.  

To use Cash App as a shield for your main bank account or debit/credit card, go to the Google Play or Apple App store, search for Cash App, and download the application. Once Cash App is installed, click the icon to open the app. After opening, you’ll want to add your debit or credit card to the mobile payment platform. Decide how much you want your online spend to be, and tap Add Cash within the app. Once added, Cash App will now display the balance amount you have to spend.  

Make sure to immediately remove your linked bank account or debit/credit card from the app. Why? Because if your Cash App information is compromised or entered on the wrong website, but your bank account or debit/credit card is not linked to the app, you will only lose the amount of money you added to Cash App! All of the money in your bank account will remain secure. Once you have practiced with this "trick," you’ll notice that it only takes about 2 minutes to link your bank information to Cash App, add money to it, and immediately remove it. This simple step will limit your susceptibility to fraud should you fall onto the wrong side of the internet this holiday season.    

3.    Only order from retailers you have heard of before. 

This is a big one, as it can help you avoid one of the fastest-growing online scams out there: the shipping scam. The shipping scam works very simply: you buy something from an overseas supplier, and the pictures look great. But when the items arrive, they are low quality, the wrong size, or the wrong items altogether!  

For example, say a customer purchases a Gazebo online and receives a plastic thimble in an envelope. Now, you may be thinking, "that's okay, I will just request a refund or return the item." The problem is that this plastic thimble, empty envelope, or wrong item that you have received likely has a tracking number attached to it, and once the faulty item has been delivered, it is much more difficult to prove fraud to your bank or credit card provider. This is because the seller can claim that they sent you the purchased items, and have a tracking number to prove it!  

If you try to return these items, you will often find that the cost to send anything overseas to foreign countries is likely close to or equal to the price you initially paid. In fact, Chinese companies, often with strangely named websites, are behind 80% of shipping scams worldwide. These types of companies profit from your avoidance to pay for the total cost to return the low-quality or wrong item you received. So, very simply, the best way to prevent all shipping scams is not to order from websites you have never heard of, or that no one you know has ever used. 

4.    Don’t pay with gift cards. 

Unless you received the gift card as a gift, you should never pay for an item online with a gift card. This advice mainly applies to larger purchases, including cars, laptops, or anything over a few hundred dollars. The critical point here is that if the seller asks for a gift card directly, they are trying to scam. Scammers request gift cards because legally, these cards are a "gift" and not legal tender, and gift cards are non-refundable.  

This means that no matter the circumstances you give the gift card away in, you will not be able to seek a refund from either the store the gift card belongs to, your bank, or anyone else. However, it is okay if you want to use a gift card to make a purchase, as long as you open a web browser, go to the website the gift card is from and make a direct purchase. Just make sure not to give gift card numbers to someone telling you that you must use a gift card to complete the purchase. 

5.    That deal is too good to be true. 

We've all been there. You find that great deal online that you just have to buy! A general rule to follow is that if it's not on a major website, and if it's not a special Black Friday or Christmas sale, then that half-priced deal you found is almost certainly a scam site. If you can only see one place on the internet selling an item at a specific low price, and the website you find is one that no one you know has ever heard of before or used, you've stumbled upon the low-price scam. It is likely that you will never receive the item you buy—and if you do, it will be a used model, a much older model, or the wrong item altogether.  

Consider this, if every place on the internet sells a new item for $50, and you find one place selling it for $20, the site selling it for $20 is using the low-marked price to trick you into giving away all your data—your name, address, credit card numbers, and maybe your birthday too! When shopping online, enough information is given for criminals or scammers to steal your identity—and what they don't have, they can typically gather from social media to fill in the gaps. Don’t let a low price lead you into an identity or financial crisis. It's best to stick with the bigger, well-known websites that have entire security teams and protocols that protect you, your purchases, and your data. 

6.    Don’t shop on social media. 

The fastest growing category of financial scams—at the rate of 400% growth every year—is the social media scam.  

For example, you could be contacted by a hacker who accessed your cousin's account and is asking for money for an emergency. Maybe you saw a cool-looking product on Facebook, or maybe it's a car or item on Facebook Marketplace. Please understand that more criminals and fake websites are actively placing ads on social media than honest, legitimate sellers are. So if you see an advertisement on social media for something you want, do not click it. Instead, Google the product or website's name, search for their Better Business Bureau page and look for their reviews. If the website or company does not have a Better Business Bureau page, do not order from them!  

If your best friend or family member needs money and they have reached out to you on social media, do not just send the money. Call your friend or family member, hear their voice over the phone, and ensure they need the money. These types of requests on social media are often from hackers that have taken over your friends' or loved ones' accounts. Scams like this are popular during the holiday season because you are far more likely to want to help out a person in need, especially someone close to you. It's okay to be generous. Just make sure you call the person and hear their voice first, so you know it's them.   

We can all navigate this holiday season successfully, make meaningful memories with our loved ones, and rejoice in lit, cheerful faces receiving special gifts. Following these tips will help ensure that you don’t spend the holidays talking to your banks and credit card companies trying to solve a problem that could have been avoided. Everyone deserves gifts that arrive intact and at the right price this holiday season. 

Happy holidays and safe shopping to all! 

[Sources: 

https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga/pr/multiple-india-based-call-centers-and-their-directors-indicted-perpetuating-phone-scams  

https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/data-visualizations/data-spotlight/2022/01/social-media-gold-mine-scammers-2021