12 Ways You Can Avoid Getting Scammed While Shopping This Holiday Season
Keep your money and your information safe.
Scams—some obvious, some obviously dangerous—pop up every year, but 2020 has had its own special set of attempted cons designed to steal information, money, or both. We had the FedEx text scam earlier this year and stimulus check scams in the spring, and now, with the holiday shopping season nearing its peak, the annual round of holiday shopping scams is here.
With more and more people ordering gifts and shopping online this holiday season, rather than picking up items in-store, it’s easier than ever for nefarious websites or vendors to trick stressed-out shoppers into paying for an item they’ll never receive—and even steal their credit card or private information. Savvy shoppers are on high alert: The Better Business Bureau, or BBB, reports an increase of more than 300 percent in customers researching online retailers through the BBB’s website. Plus, it’s the season of giving charitably, and plenty of organizations may masquerade as non-profits to accept donations for an effort or cause that doesn’t exist. Whether you’re shopping or donating, you want to get the product—or contribute to a cause—that you expect, and avoiding online tricks is the best way to do so.
You may know how to avoid internet scams for the most part, but it never hurts to be extra cautious or brush up on your scam-avoidance knowledge. Follow these tips from Facebook, the Better Business Bureau, and FICO to keep your identity and money safe this season—2021 you will be so grateful.
“Think twice before clicking on an advertisement or a website to buy from to protect your personal identity,” says Liz Lasher, vice president of portfolio marketing for fraud at FICO.
An ad for that perfect gift you’ve been searching for may take you to a fraudulent website where your information may be at risk, or one selling fake goods. Look over the ad for a business name or website. If it seems suspicious, google the company or type the website in to visit the site.
If you do click on the ad, experts at Facebook say to check the website name: Is it what you expected, or did the ad take you to a completely different site? If it has, exit out immediately and look for somewhere else you can purchase the product.
If you can rein in your spending, make sure you shop with a credit card this holiday season. According to research from the BBB, people who pay with credit cards are less likely to lose money, and Lasher says credit cards offer the best fraud protection for shopping online. Even if you do fall prey to a scam—ordering an item that never arrives, for example, from a company that offers no customer support—you may be able to file a claim with your credit card company to get all or some of your money back. (Check your credit card contract’s fine print to see what fraud protections you get.) If you pay with a debit card, it can be much more difficult to get money back.
Whenever possible, shop with a credit card or secure and traceable payment methods such as PayPal. If the vendor requests payment by cash transfer apps (such as Venmo or Cash App), prepaid money cards, or another non-traditional method, proceed with caution, Facebook and the BBB say. Lasher recommends sending a test transaction first when paying a stranger through an app or non-traditional payment method. If you sense something funny about the situation, shop somewhere else.
With the spike in online shopping this year, everyone has plenty of tracking numbers to keep an eye on—and there are plenty of ways those tracking numbers can fool you. One common scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), is for scammers to send a text saying you have a package waiting for you. The text often says you need to sign in to arrange delivery for the package and includes a link that takes you to a website where you can be tricked into sharing your personal information, including passwords, account numbers, or Social Security Number.
If you get an unexpected text about a package, don’t click the link. Instead, contact the company the text is supposedly from by phone or email to ask about the message.
If you are expecting a package (or several—it’s the holiday shopping season, after all) you can distinguish real tracking information from fake info by looking carefully at the message itself. If it has a company name that you recognize and recently purchased from, it’s likely real. If you’re concerned, copy the tracking number from the text or email confirming shipment and paste it directly into the search tool on the shipping company’s website. Avoiding clicking links is typically the safest option.
Another trick is for a fraudulent website to send fake tracking information for a product you ordered but won’t receive, the BBB says. The tracking information should be associated with a legitimate shipping company—the USPS, UPS, FedEx, and DHL are all common ones in the U.S. If not, it may be a scam. If anything about the information seems suspicious, avoid clicking the link (again) and go to the shipping company’s website to confirm if the tracking number is legitimate.
While you’re on the lookout for scams, you may get a text from your bank or credit card company saying they’ve found fraudulent behavior and need you to log in to look at it. This text might have a link—don’t click it. Instead, log directly into the mobile app or site for your bank or card to see if the alert is real. For any communication with your bank or credit card company, do it directly with them through their secured app or website, Lasher says—never share personal info over text with a number claiming to be your bank.
When shopping online, especially from new or unfamiliar companies, take some time to look over a website (or Facebook Page) to make sure it’s legitimate. If it’s not a company you know, read over any customer comments on the Facebook Page (if they have one) and check the creation date. Very young pages or those without any comments or reviews may not be legitimate.
On websites, look for spelling or grammar mistakes—a reliable sign of an illegitimate company—clear, detailed product information, and size charts for clothing, Facebook experts recommend. Reliable websites will have a clearly stated return policy, customer service or contact info, and clear shipping costs, delivery times, and tracking information. Look online in other places (aka not the company’s website), such as BBB.org, for reviews or proof of legitimacy. The BBB’s recent Online Purchase Scams Report found that 57 percent of survey participants did not research a website or business through an independent source before making a purchase—and 80 percent of them lost money.
You may be searching for a deal or a hard-to-find gift, but don’t let your hunt blind you to suspicious pricing or availability. BBB research found that the top motivating factor for people who lost money on a purchase was price—don’t shop on price alone. Experts at Facebook say that if a price is too good to be true, it usually is. And if a retailer claims to have a huge supply of a product you can’t find anywhere else, be careful—the BBB says scammers often use popular products at great prices to nab shoppers.
Just because a website or vendor has great photos doesn’t mean it’s legitimate—or that what you see is what you’ll get. According to the BBB, people say website photos convinced them to engage with scammers, especially for pets or pet supplies, clothing or accessories, and vehicles. To make sure what you see is what you get, check the product description or ask for detailed information if you’re shopping through a marketplace such as Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.
Businesses accredited by the BBB have pledged to uphold the BBB Standards for Trust and to deal fairly with customers. If you see a BBB seal, it’s likely a reputable business—but you can also verify the seal by going to the BBB’s website.
If you haven’t changed your passwords for banks, credit cards, and other important accounts lately (or ever), consider doing so during the holiday season. More password protections mean it’s tougher for scammers to hack your accounts, and the longer the password, the better, Lasher says. If you worry you may have fallen for a scam and given away your password to any account, go ahead and change all your passwords immediately, just in case.
Don’t be a Scrooge, but do confirm that an organization or charity you’re donating to is legitimate before you send money. There are plenty of ways to make sure your charitable giving is going to a good cause, but the most important thing is to do your homework.
“Obsessively check your credit reports,” Lasher says. If your identity has been stolen without your realizing it, the consequences—new loans or credit cards that you didn’t sign up for—will show up on your credit report. The good news is that U.S. citizens are eligible for free, weekly credit reports until April, so you can check to your heart’s desire without spending a penny.
If you are scammed or you encounter some of the suspicious behavior described above, there are opportunities for you to report it so others don’t get caught. You can file a report with the BBB if you’re unhappy with a purchase, or if you never received an item you paid for, you can report it to the BBB Scam Tracker to help others avoid the same fate.
If your bad shopping experience took place on Facebook or Instagram, you can report that, too, through the Recent Ad Activity tab. You’ll be able to see ads you recently clicked on—if you clicked through to a fraudulent site, for example—and leave feedback on any that were suspicious. Advertisers with negative feedback could lose their eligibility to advertise with Facebook.