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'Tis the Season: Protecting Yourself Against Holiday Fraud

Spotting Holiday Scams Will Help Keep Your Holidays Merry and Bright

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The holiday season is fast approaching and that means that the holiday shopping season is in full swing.

Whether you are looking for those perfect gifts for the people in your life or donating to a charity to assist those who aren’t as fortunate during this time, the holidays bring increased spending across the country.

With this increase comes a heightened risk for fraud, with scammers seeing this time as a prime opportunity to prey upon unsuspecting shoppers or donors who might be too distracted by the chaos of the holidays to notice that they are falling for a scam.

Scams are prevalent in our day-to-day lives, but according to a report from TransUnion, the number of suspected e-commerce fraud attempts during the 2021 holiday shopping season saw a 25% increase over the 15.73% of fraud attempts observed from January 1st to November 29th.1

With such a high spike in fraud attempts during the holidays, it is important to stay vigilant when shopping or giving both offline and online and understand what to look for to protect yourself from falling victim to holiday fraud. Knowing how to spot these scams and what to do if you happen to experience one is the best defense in keeping your holiday shopping experience merry and bright.

2021 Holiday Shopping Season saw a 25% increase in fraud attempts over January 1 – November 29 that same year.

Gift Card Fraud

Gift cards are an easy and convenient item to give during the holidays, especially when you don’t know what someone wants or needs or can’t think of anything specific to get them. According to the National Retail Federation, gift cards have been the most popular gift in America for the past 14 years.2

This year looks to continue this trend, as the Blackhawk Network, a global branded payments provider, forecasts gift card spending to jump 27% this holiday season.3

With such high demand, it’s easy to understand why gift cards are one of the primary methods of holiday fraud, with around one in four people who have reported fraud to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) saying that they paid with a gift card.3

One of the most important things to look for when purchasing a gift card is to make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with. Check the PIN number and make sure that it is still covered by its original coating. Scammers can steal the PIN and the card number and when you add money to the card, they can drain it into their own account.4

Another area to check closely is the barcode. Scammers will cover the original barcode with a sticker of their own barcode so when you add money, it will send it to the scammer’s card directly.4

Other ways to combat gift card fraud include taking cards from the middle of the peg or purchasing cards from behind the register; making sure that your receipt matches the number on the gift card; and purchasing gift cards directly from the retailer or in stores rather than online. In 2021, it was reported by Bolster, a tech company specializing in finding fake websites, that they saw more than 152,000 fake websites built around gift card scams. This was five times more than what they saw in 2020.5

In 2021, more than 152,000 fake websites built around gift card scams. This was five times more than what was seen in 2020.

- Bolster, a tech company specializing in finding fake websites

Charity Fraud

The holidays are not only a great time to surprise others with gifts, but it’s a time to give back and have opportunities to help by donating your time and money to charities that assist the people who need it the most.

One of the biggest charitable events in the US around the holidays is Giving Tuesday, which is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Starting in 2012 as a day to give time and money to charities, Giving Tuesday has grown to become a major success. A 2021 report on the event stated that nearly $2.5 billion was donated in the US on this day in 2020.6

While this amount of generosity is great to see, some scammers have taken notice of this and will disguise themselves as charities to take your money for their personal gain.

The first thing to look for is what and how the organization wants you to donate. Use caution if an organization asks for donations in the form of gift cards, wire transfers, or even straight cash.

Reputable organizations will not be this upfront about how they want you to donate and will not ask for gift cards or wire transfers. If you see anything asking you for a monetary donation in a specific manner, do not interact with it.6

Next, do not rush into donating just because you feel that you need to act quickly or are required to donate on Giving Tuesday specifically. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises that organizations are going to take your donation no matter when you choose to donate. Do not trust any organization that offers time-specific perks or benefits for donating within a certain timeframe. If you feel pressure to donate, take your time.6

Lastly, make sure to do your research on the organization(s) you want to support. Most organizations will have a website where you can view their mission statement and what your donations will go toward. The BBB and the IRS allow you to search organizations to determine their validity. You can check out the website for the National Association of State Charity Officials, where many charities must register.6 You can also check Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that evaluates charities based on their financial health, accountability, and transparency.3

Other Forms of Holiday Fraud

While gift card fraud and charity fraud are the prominent scams during the holidays, other forms of holiday fraud to be aware of this season include:

  • Package Delivery Scams: Online shopping is becoming the main form of holiday shopping and packages are constantly being delivered by companies such as Amazon, the USPS, FedEx, and UPS. Scammers try to take advantage of this by pretending to be a delivery company and attempting to get you to click on a malicious link to steal your personal information.

    Watch out for texts or emails from any delivery company telling you that your package has been delivered, has an issue, or is missing a payment. Check the message for any spelling errors or strange wording. If you are unsure and concerned, reach out to the delivery company directly.3, 5
  • Money App Scams: For some, instead of buying specific gifts, they will just send money to their friends or family so they can buy what they want. This has become easier than ever before with the introduction of third-party money-transferring apps such as Cash App, Venmo, or our partner here at Elements, Zelle®. Since these apps are connected to your debit cards or bank accounts, they are typically targeted by scammers year-round.

    Never use your money app to pay for merchandise during the holidays and be wary of sites that only accept payment through these apps. Since these are third-party systems and not actual financial institutions, if you make a transaction that turns out to be a scam, it is unlikely that you will be able to get that money back. Also, never give any passcodes out or give access to your account on these apps to anyone. If you receive a text or call from what appears to be your financial institution and they ask for this info, do not give it to them and contact your credit union or bank as soon as you can.7, 8

What do I do if I think I’ve been scammed?

If you feel that you have been scammed, it is important to take the necessary actions to limit the damages caused and to protect yourself from any more issues that could be faced.

  • Contact your credit union or bank immediately: If you sent the scammer any money or account information, call your financial institution and let them know that you have experienced fraud. Ask that the transaction be canceled and if it has already gone through, you may be able to dispute the payment in an effort to get your money back.3
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission: Let the FTC know about the scam that you have experienced via a complaint to inform them of what is going on. This will allow them to protect others from experiencing the same scam. The FTC will provide you with the proper steps to take to potentially get your money back.3
  • Freeze your credit reports: Scams that steal your personal information and not just your money can be dangerous when it comes to your credit reports. If you feel that your personal information was stolen, freeze your credit reports immediately. Doing so will block the scammer from opening any accounts using your information, which could tarnish your credit scores.3

Have questions or need to report suspicious activity? Our credit union experts are always here for you. Contact Elements Financial for fraud support year-round. From everyone at Elements, may you enjoy a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season!

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