You Better Watch Out: How to Protect Yourself From Holiday Scams

A person looks stressed out while looking at their phone.
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By now, you know to watch out for online scams. If you own a cell phone, we bet you’ve gotten at least one weird text or phone call from someone pretending to be something they’re not.

We’re getting deep into the holidays, though, and it’s a really busy time of year. You’re going to be slammed and preoccupied and pulled every which way, and you won’t necessarily be on your guard all the time.

So your “Spidey sense” may not go off right away if you get a phony text about a package that’s supposedly being shipped to you — ah, but there is no package, and it’s just some financial fraudster who’s trying to ensnare you.

Americans lose nearly $6 billion a year to fraud. But the holidays bring out their own special kind of scams — ones that are tailored specifically for Christmas shoppers. Don’t be too surprised if some creep or some creepy outfit targets you between now and the end of the year.

It’s not personal — they target everybody.

Here are three common scams you’re most likely to see during the holidays, and here’s how to protect yourself from them.

1. ‘Click Here to See When Your Package Will Arrive’

Here’s the most common one — the fake text or email that claims to be updating you on the delivery of a product you ordered.

We’re all shopping online more and more, which means we’re all watching our doorsteps and mailboxes to see when all our cool loot will arrive. That’s the best part!

But don’t click on the link in that text or email, even though it might seem super convenient. Don’t do it!

“Take a closer look at the sender and recipients,” the Better Business Bureau advises. “An email may come to you in the name of a reputable company, but look closely at the sender’s email address. If the address is unrecognizable — perhaps a long string of letters and numbers that don’t make sense — it’s probably an impostor.”

This is probably a phishing attack — someone posing as a reputable company to get your personal financial information.

If you want to check on the status of your package delivery, go to the retailer’s website and type in the purchase code or shipping code the retailer gave you when you made the online purchase. Amazon and eBay and Etsy make this super easy. Most legitimate online retailers do.

Shop online in peace knowing your packages will reach you safely with these seven tips for outsmarting porch pirates.

2. ‘You’ve Won a $50 Gift Card From (Insert Retailer Here)’

Spoiler alert: You have not won a $50 gift card. Or a $20 gift card. Or even a $5 gift card. Nope. Nobody’s handing out gift cards willy-nilly.

We’re all susceptible to this scam because rampant inflation has us all short of money. Who couldn’t use an extra 50 bucks or so?

But this is another phishing attack! They’re probably going to want your bank account number, as well as your Social Security number and any other information you’re willing to give them.

If you think your free gift card might be for real, go to the retailer’s website or call the customer service number to see if it’s legit. They should be able to tell you.

3. ‘We Guarantee It’ll Be There by Christmas’

Unrealistic promises about shipping times are a huge red flag.

Sure, everybody wants fast, free delivery. But as we get closer and closer to Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa), fraudsters know you’re going to be desperate to get those presents to Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue delivered on time.

If the delivery date you’re being offered sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Whatever this is, it’s probably not a legitimate offer. Don’t fall for it.

More Tips for Foiling Holiday Scammers

The financial fraudsters will be busy little elves this season. Here are a few other tips to keep in mind.

Look for a Real Address and Phone Number

Scam websites often have similar web addresses and can look nearly identical to the real websites they’re imitating, the Better Business Bureau warns. Watch for red flags before typing in any personal or payment information.

“Legitimate online stores should provide you with a physical address and working phone number in the contact section,” the BBB says. “If those elements are missing, it’s best to take your business elsewhere.”

Return policies and shipping policies should also be clear and easy to understand, the BBB adds.

Pay With a Credit Card, Not Your Debit Card

Should you use a debit card or a credit card to make your holiday purchases? Well now, this gets a little tricky.

Normally we don’t encourage lots of spending on credit cards because of rising credit card debt and rising credit card interest rates.

But in this case, a credit card typically offers better fraud protection on purchases than a debit card does.

If your credit card information gets stolen and is used to make purchases, federal law limits your burden of the fraudulent charges to $50. But it isn’t hard to find a credit card company that will offer you a $0 liability benefit.

Plus, if a fraudulent charge is made on your account, you have more time to sort it out with a credit card. It’s not like your checking account, where a fraudulent charge could cause your rent check to bounce.

What If You Still Get Scammed?

Your first move is to report the scam to local law enforcement and to the Federal Trade Commission.

Change your passwords if you think a scammer obtained them. Contact your bank if your debit card was used or your account information was given out. Contact your credit card company if something was charged to your card.

If you got scammed online, make sure to check your computer with antivirus software for malicious software or malware.

Like we said, those financial fraudsters are going to be busy little elves this season. They’re definitely on the naughty list.

Remember, it’s the most fraudulent time of the year. Watch out for Frosty the Scam Man!

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.