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How to Recognize and Avoid Holiday Scams


For many people, the period between late November and early January is the most wonderful time of the year.

It's an equally joyful few months for scammers, cybercriminals, and identity thieves who delight in turning your season of giving into their season of taking.

Here are some tips to help you avoid winding up on the wish list of fraudsters during the upcoming holidays (and beyond).

Common Holiday Scams

Con artists and crooks will use every method possible to exploit our shopping habits. However, these scams become especially popular once December is within sight:

Fake Retail Emails and Black Friday/Cyber Monday Specials

If you have an email account, you've probably received more alerts about Black Friday and Cyber Monday than you can count. Scammers know your inbox will be flooded with sales flyers from places like Kohls, Amazon, Best Buy, and other companies every holiday season, so they're betting you won't be paying attention, and that you'll fall for one of their well-disguised phishing emails.

Some of these fraudulent messages play on fear. For example, you might receive a fake notification that asks you to verify your identity for your online shopping account, but it's really designed to hijack your login credentials or other personal information.

Another common variation uses the lure of free cash or other rewards to motivate you to act quickly to claim a prize. Unfortunately, holiday offers that seem too good to be true are often scams intended to steal your money or sensitive data.

Infographic on common holiday scams

Fraudulent Shipping Notifications

Nobody wants to experience delays with merchandise they've ordered or packages they've shipped — especially when it comes to last-minute gifts. So, if you do much shopping online, you'll likely pay attention to an urgent email about a package that couldn't be delivered.

Cyberthieves often send out fraudulent emails that are really phishing attacks disguised as invoices or delivery notifications from FedEx, DHL, UPS, or the USPS. The goal is to trick you into opening an attachment or clicking a link that takes you to a phony website where they can collect your personal information. They may also try to entice you to open an attachment that infects your device with a virus or malware.

Scrutinize any email or message that prompts you to respond quickly.

Charity Shams

Whether you're sharing with the less fortunate or contributing to a worthy cause, it's easy to get wrapped up with charitable giving around the holidays. Sadly, seasonal philanthropy can lead to periodic fraud because of its widespread reach, limited duration, and minimal oversight.

Scammers make it easy for you to give money to seemingly legitimate charities or organizations by using fake emails, spam calls, phony crowdfunding sites, and imposter websites to solicit donations. They'll then divert some or all the funds for their personal use, preventing your contributions from ever reaching those in need.

Fake Mobile Apps

Some apps can bypass built-in security measures in the app store. Be wary of apps from unknown developers or those with limited/bad reviews. Only use apps you trust or that have been verified.

"It" Gift Scams

Your kid has been begging for this year's "it" gift for months, but you haven't been able to find it online or at any store within driving distance. Then, almost magically, websites start to pop up on your computer advertising that they have the toy or game your child just can't live without and are selling it at an unbelievably low price.

Don't fall for this "deal." The advertiser is likely a criminal who doesn't have the product and is using the offer to harvest personal information or credit card info through a digital payment platform like PayPal or Venmo.

Cyberthieves often send out fraudulent emails disguised as invoices or delivery notifications from major shipping carriers.

Phony Social Media Ads

Social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram attract millions of viewers daily, making them fertile ground for criminals to seed lookalike accounts and ads that can fool you into making risky decisions.

Be wary of posts on social media sites that offer vouchers and gift cards or holiday promotions and contests. These scams will prompt you to participate in an online survey that's intended to deceive you into providing credit card data or personal information.

Seasonal Job Hoaxes

If you're thinking about picking up a seasonal job to make some extra cash over the holidays, be sure to apply in person or directly on a company's website. Scammers have been known to pretend they're employees of recognized businesses and post help-wanted ads on social media platforms and popular websites.

When you follow the links in these ads, you're taken to an imposter site where you're asked to submit an application. The fraudster will then make off with the personal information that you share, leaving you with no job and a compromised identity.

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Holiday Travel Tricks

When the weather outside turns frightful, you might be inclined to head someplace more delightful. Make sure you don't take a trip to the poorhouse by falling for a holiday travel scam.

Remember the advice earlier about too-good-to-be-true offers? Scammers have long used fake travel sites to post unbeatable deals to the tropics and other exotic destinations to dupe visitors into spending their hard-earned money on vacations to nowhere.

Gift Card Shams

Gift cards are great options for those hard-to-buy-for individuals who might be on your gift list. They've also become a prime target for holiday hustlers.

There are number of different gift cards scams that clever criminals use, including fake promotions on social media promoting phony vouchers or gift cards paired with special promotions.

Most gift card shams involve urgent emails, phone calls, or texts from a person or organization asking — if not demanding — you to purchase a gift card and use it to pay for a bill or service. As the Federal Trade Commission website notes, gift cards are for gifts, not for making bill payments.

Holiday offers that seem too good to be true are often scams intended to steal your money or sensitive data.

How to Keep from Being Scammed

The best way to get past a holiday scam is to keep it from ever happening. Here are three easy ways to prevent thieves from gifting themselves at your expense:

Slow Down

It's easy to get swept away by the hustle and bustle of the holidays, but you should avoid rushing to snap judgments. Scrutinize any email or message that prompts you to respond quickly, especially if it's to visit a website, download a file, or log into an account.

Play it Safe

To keep from falling for online imposters, only visit and make purchases from trusted websites — ideally those you've used or done business with in the past. If you decide to shop at less-familiar sites, do your research and read as many customer reviews as you can before entering your payment information.

Beware of Scam Sales

There's a difference between a great price and an unbelievable deal. If you see ads and sites promoting luxury goods at extreme discounts prices — or, maybe, that impossible-to-find electronic device that's sold out everywhere else — chances are it's a scammer selling counterfeit goods or trying to con you into paying for a product that they never send.

Seasonal philanthropy can lead to periodic fraud because of its widespread reach, limited duration, and minimal oversight.

For added protection during the giving season, be sure to secure your phone from hacks and follow good cyber hygiene whether you're at home or away.

What to Do if You Get Scammed

Since most seasonal scams now involve some form of online deception or cyberattack, the road to recovery is essentially the same path you would take if you fell victim to credit card fraud.

If you suspect or know your identity has been stolen as part of a holiday scam, you should take additional steps to minimize the damage.

Regardless of the type or severity of the crime, it's important to take action as soon as you realize you've been scammed. Don't wait until the holidays are over to start putting your money matters back on track.


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The Takeaway

The holidays are a popular time to take advantage of unsuspecting or distracted shoppers.

However, by familiarizing yourself with common seasonal scams, remaining vigilant, and being proactive if you suspect activity that would land someone on the naughty list, you can save yourself a lot of holiday headaches and financial fuss.

Have More Questions about Security? PenFed has Answers

Learn more about protecting yourself from online holiday scams.