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How to protect yourself from scams this holiday season

A woman types on a keyboard
Jenny Kane
In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo a woman types on a keyboard in New York.

Whether you’re online shopping on Black Friday or donating to charities during this holiday season, it can be all too easy to fall vulnerable to scammers.

The Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit that tracks and manages consumer complaints, has compiled a list of the top 12 holiday scams.

WLRN spoke with Cinthya Lavin, the BBB's vice president of communication for Southeast Florida, about how to identify, avoid and navigate these scams from misleading social media ads to puppy scams.

Spotting red flags during a sale

The BBB recommends being careful with social media ads that promote discounted items, job opportunities, direct messages from strangers, donation requests and holiday events.

A red flag is if someone requests payment or donation through a third party or by wire transfer, prepaid debit card or gift card.

“Any high-pressure tactic is a big red flag. If you come across a salesperson [who] tells you that the deal ends today and you have to take action, and if you don't take action, then you're going to come back and that deal will not be available to you — that's a big red flag,” Lavin said.

READ MORE: False Medicare ads shot up in past years. Here's how you spot a scam

She added that anything that asks a customer to share a social security number or high levels of personal information is also of concern.

To avoid distractions from sales and online offerings, Lavin advises customers to make a shopping list and, if possible, make purchases with a credit card.

“Credit cards have that layer of protection, that if you go to a retailer that doesn't fulfill their promise, they can go ahead and file a chargeback with their credit card company,” she said.

Top holiday scams

  • Misleading social media ads: The BBB scam tracker receives reports of people paying for items they don’t end up receiving, that they haven’t signed up for or even receiving items much different from what was advertised.  “There [are] a lot of scammers taking out fake ads for fake websites offering high ticket items for a lower price, and then people fall for this,” Lavin said.
  • Social media gift exchanges: This could be an illegal pyramid scheme where people are tricked into buying and shipping gifts or money to strangers. Examples of scam exchanges that have been reported to the BBB include items like $10 gifts and bottles of wine.
  • Temporary holiday jobs: It is common for retailers to hire seasonal workers to meet the demands of shoppers during the holidays. But scammers can also use job applications to steal money and personal information. The BBB said it’s important to keep an eye out for “opportunities that seem too good to be true.”
  • Advent calendars: Sometimes advent calendars will not arrive as promised on a social media ad, whether because they never arrived, were different from the item in the ad or were incomplete. 
  • Top holiday wishlist items: Beware of counterfeits and knockoffs of electronics, designer clothing, jewelry, low-priced luxury goods and even popular toys. 
  • Puppy scams: The BBB reported that 80% of sponsored pet ads tend to be fake. So if you’re planning on getting a dog, make sure to see the pet in person before making a purchase. Lavin said to be wary of sellers that claim an animal comes from out of state or out of the country to make sure they meet the federal requirements to enter the United States. “You have to do your research, go to a known breeder, a reputable breeder. You can go to BBB.org and look for pet shops or you can just get some referrals maybe from friends or family,” she said.
  • Some other common scams are done through holiday apps, free gift cards, look-alike websites, fake charities, fake texts that say a person’s been hacked and fake shipping or delivery notifications. For more information on those, visit the BBB’s article.

What to do if you get scammed

If you feel that you have been exposed to a scam — even if you didn't lose money — the BBB has a scam tracker to report a scam or find reports of similar scams in their database.

"If they feel like their personal information was compromised, we also advise people to go into the credit bureaus and put a lock on their credit just so that scammers cannot take credits out in their name and also call their banks and notify them," Lavin said.

The Federal Trade Commission also has a handy guide on what to do if you paid a scammer, gave personal information to a scammer or gave computer or phone access to a scammer.

"So be very careful who you have interactions with, not just during the holiday season, but across the board, online and over the phone and text message," Lavin added.

Ammy Sanchez, the Morning Edition producer for WLRN, studies communications at the Honors College at Florida International University.
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