The holiday season is traditionally a time for reconnecting with family and friends, sending letters and exchanging gifts. However, with the increase in online shopping, long-distance communication like emails and phone calls and the search for custom gifts in niche places, there is also an increased risk of the good nature of the season being exploited by ill intent. A recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows a marked increase in scams and fraud during the holiday season; add in the general uptick in digital fraud of late, and that means citizens should keep a vigilant eye out to avoid having their holiday soured by a scam.
Bodies like the FBI and local law enforcement have offered some advice on how to avoid scams and fraud cases for both sellers and buyers in the holiday season. Below are some good practices to keep yourself safe this season:
Never give your personal information to someone you don’t know. The most fundamental rule of identity security is protecting your personal information. Per the FBI Houston Media Office, “Never give personal information - such as your date of birth, home address, Social Security number or bank account and credit card numbers - to anyone you do not know. Be highly suspicious of social media promotions and giveaways which require your personal information.”
Never compromise your account security by giving usernames or passwords out. Online services are required by law to encrypt and protect your password information - they do not have any reason to know your password or information like security questions and answers. Services like Facebook and other social media; email; Amazon and other online sales services; and Netflix and other streaming services will not ask for your password outside of the regular login process. If it appears that they are, it is likely someone impersonating those services to gain access to your accounts. If you believe there is an issue with your account, go straight to the official websites of these services and find a support number to call or manage your account from there.
Be wary of reports like “account issues,” “payment failures” and “delivery failures” coming from anonymous phone numbers or unrecognized email accounts. Per the FBI’s report, the most common scams this time of year are claims that a package has failed to deliver - many people are ordering gifts online, so such claims are more likely to be taken seriously. Most delivery services and online shopping sites will be specific in what order has failed to be delivered; if a notification is vague and does not specify what order has failed to deliver or misprocessed payment, it may be a scammer looking for account information. Again, if you receive such a notification, go to the official website of the service and manage the issue from there.
Do not click on any links or allow yourself to be forwarded to third party services. One common fraud practice is to send texts with links in them claiming to solve whatever problem the message puts forward. Do not click links in text messages or emails from unverified senders.
Be wary of transactions that use hard-to-track currency. Scammers often have preferred payment methods that are hard to track once they’re sent; these include direct wire transfers, gift cards or virtual currencies. Gift cards are a common scam target; do not accept a transaction that offers you something in exchange for the code or image off the back of a gift card like Steam, Nintendo or Amazon.
Don’t be afraid to call familiar numbers back after a quick disconnect. According to previous interviews with the Kanab City Police Department, locals have been experiencing phone calls from cloned numbers - that is, numbers that masquerade as someone from your contact list. If you receive a call from a loved one with very bad signal masking their voice, especially one that quickly provides an excuse to hand the call off to a stranger (for example, one scam used was “I am in the hospital, here talk to a nurse so you can pay for my treatment”), hang up and call that person back. Cloned numbers almost never receive calls, so if you can hang up and call your loved one, it will go to that number genuinely - one Kanab local reported getting a phone call from his daughter’s phone number, with an allegedly distraught woman on the other end who supposedly desperately needed leg surgery due to a car crash and the hospital would not treat her until a credit card was on record. The local gentleman hung up while he searched for his card to help, and when he called his daughter back, she was at home, safe and sound.
Be aware of “too good to be true” holiday scenarios. To quote the FBI Houston report, “Criminals frequently offer too-good-to- be-true deals via phishing e-mails, text messages, and online surveys designed to steal personal information. Bottom line: if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is! Stay clear of unfamiliar sites offering unrealistic discounts on brand-name merchandise.
Consumers should also remain skeptical of social media posts offering special deals, vouchers or gift cards. These scams frequently lead consumers to online surveys designed to steal personal information. Before you click on a social media advertisement or provide credit card information, check the legitimacy of the website through independent research. Without practicing vigilance, shoppers may end up paying for an item, giving away personal information, and receive nothing in return except a compromised identity.”
On the other end of the transaction, “Sellers, Stay Alert: Keep an eye out for buyers who want items shipped before they will send payment, especially if those buyers use one name when communicating and another name or business for payment purposes. Also, buyers who receive your merchandise and ask for a refund, but do not send the original merchandise back may be part of a larger fraud scheme.
If you suspect you have been a victim of fraud, report it to your financial institution and local authorities right away. Additionally, if the fraud occurred online, you can report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov. Stay safe by keeping an eye out for scams that would capitalize on the goodwill surrounding this holiday season.