The holiday season is a time for shopping, giving and family festivities. It’s also a time for heightened vigilance about cyber crime and fraud. Scammers and cyber thieves come up with new ways to steal your money, data and identity every year, and many of these schemes are rampant during the holidays.
“Even though you’re in the holiday spirit, you need to be cautious,” says Ellen Segriff, Head of Wealth Management Americas Privacy, Cyber and Information Security, UBS. “We’re all rushing around, trying to get a lot done, and that's why we need to be even more careful."
Here are five common holiday scams and tips on how to avoid them:
1. Online shopping scams: Online shoppers hunting for Black Friday bargains or Cyber Monday deals be warned: Fraudulent shopping websites abound, advertising unusually deep price cuts or exclusive offers meant to lure you into providing your personal or financial information or clicking on malicious links that can infect your computer.
How to stay safe: Remember, if an offer seems too good to be true, it likely is. Jamie Howard, Deputy Head of Fraud Risk Management and Investigations, UBS, says it’s best to shop only with reputable retailers and only transact on secure websites with “https” in the URL. Also be sure to have the latest anti-virus software running on your device.
2. Malicious e-mail links: From bogus e-cards to malware-laden advertisements, e-mail scams are a major problem during the holidays. Phishing schemes involving package-delivery notices are especially prevalent. An e-mail, purporting to be from the U.S. Postal Service or a common carrier delivery service, instructs customers to click on a link that promises a shipping-status update but instead unleashes a virus or other malware on their device that could end up stealing usernames, passwords and other private information.
How to stay safe: Segriff advises that unless you know the sender, “never click on a link in an e-mail, and never open attachments.” Also, never send personal or financial information by e-mail. "If anyone asks you for that, it's a red flag."
3. Wi-Fi hotspot risks: Think twice about using the unsecured Wi-Fi in an airport, hotel or other public space to order that last-minute gift from your laptop, tablet or smartphone.Mobile devices make it convenient for us to shop almost anywhere at any time, but they also make it easier for crooks to carry out a wide variety of cyber schemes—from phishing to “evil twin” hacks that use bogus Wi-Fi signals to access your device and plunder your data.
How to stay safe: Keep in mind, the information you transmit or receive on unsecured wireless networks may be accessible to other users on the network. Avoid using unsecured networks in general—and never use them to send or receive personal or financial information. Consider using your own secured personal hotspot instead.
4. Gift card scams: One common scam this time of year involves a victim receiving a threatening call or voicemail saying that a family member needs help to pay for an emergency need or will soon be arrested for some kind of crime unless a fine is paid immediately. The victim is then told to make the payment with gift cards and provide the imposter with the codes to redeem and use them. “Fraud seeks to exploit one emotion or another—this one being love and trust,” Howard says. “Criminals prey on that sense of family support during the holidays."
How to stay safe: Note that no legitimate government entity, bank, attorney or bail bondsman should ask for payment via pre-paid gift cards. If you receive one of these calls and find it suspicious, never provide your personal or financial information. The best thing to do is simple: hang up.
5. Charity fraud: Many of us open our hearts and our wallets to those in need during the holidays. But beware of fraudsters who may contact you by phone or mail seeking to exploit your good intentions. “There are criminal enterprises masquerading as charitable organizations to get people’s money,” Howard says. Such scams are likely to pick up this year in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the California wildfires.
How to stay safe: Learn to recognize the warnings signs of charity scams, and only donate to charities you know and trust. Ratings on Charity Navigator's website can help you find trustworthy charitable organizations. The IRS also has an online tool that lets users search for legitimate charities to which donations may be tax-deductible.