Beware of holiday hoaxes

Every year, criminals invent new ways to steal your money, data and identity. Learn how to protect yourself from this season’s most common scams.

25 Nov 2019

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.

“We’re all rushing around, trying to get a lot done, and that’s why we need to be even more careful,” says Ellen Segriff, Head of Wealth Management Americas Privacy, Cyber and Information Security at UBS, who was recently interviewed for a UBS On-Air podcast episode. “The bad actors are counting on you to miss the signs that something may be off.”

Key takeaways

  • Criminals come up with new ways to steal your money, data and identity every year, and many of these schemes are rampant during the holiday season.
  • Stay vigilant and watch out for the top 5 most common holiday hoaxes: online shopping scams; malicious e-mail links and attachments; public WiFi hotspots; gift card scams; and charity fraud.
  • While being aware is important, there’s no need to be afraid of fraudsters. As long as you follow basic security tips, you can stay safe and enjoy the holiday season.

Here are five common holiday scams and tips for how to avoid them:

1. Online shopping scams

“Online shoppers hunting for Black Friday bargains or Cyber Monday deals may not be what they appear to be,” says Segriff. Red flags include fraudulent shopping websites, unusually deep price cuts and exclusive, time-limited offers, which scammers use to get you to reveal personal information or click on malicious links that infect your computer.

How to stay safe: If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. “It’s best to shop only with reputable retailers that have secure websites with ‘https’ in the URL,” reports Segriff. “Also, be sure to have the latest antivirus software running on your device.”

2. Malicious e-mail links

“As always, be careful when opening any attachments or clicking on links you receive by e-mail,” Segriff warns. “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.”

One e-mail, purporting to be from the US Postal Service or another popular carrier, instructs customers to click on a link that promises a shipping-status update. Instead, it unleashes a virus or other malware on their device that steals the person’s usernames, passwords and other private information.

How to stay safe: Segriff advises that, unless you know the sender, you should “never click on a link in an e-mail or open attachments.” She also recommends that you resist sending personal or financial information over e-mail. “If anyone asks you for that, it’s a red flag.”

3. Wi-Fi hotspot risks

Segriff recommends always avoiding unsecured Wi-Fi in an airport, hotel or other public space. Whether it’s to order that last-minute gift from your laptop, tablet or smartphone, or to browse the web at another time of year, the weak security of public Wi-Fi isn’t worth the risk.

“Mobile devices make it convenient for us to shop almost anywhere, at any time—but they also make it easier for bad actors to carry out a wide variety of cyber schemes, such as phishing to ‘evil twin’ hacks that use bogus Wi-Fi signals to access your device and plunder your data,” Segriff reports. “Consider using your own secured personal hotspot instead.”

How to stay safe: Keep in mind that the information you transmit or receive on an unsecured wireless network may be accessible to other users on the network. That’s why you should always avoid using unsecured networks, especially when sending or receiving personal information, such as a credit card number. Setting up a secured personal hotspot is a safe alternative.

4. Gift card scams

One common holiday scam involves a victim receiving a call or voicemail claiming that a family member needs help paying an emergency cost. They are then threatened that their loved one will be arrested for some kind of crime unless the fine is paid immediately.

In many cases, the “imposter asks you to buy a popular gift card, and then asks for the gift card number and PIN on the back of the card. Those numbers let the scammer immediately get the money you loaded onto the card. As soon as that happens, the scammer and your money are gone, usually without a trace,” Segriff warns.

How to stay safe: No legitimate government entity, bank, attorney or bail bondsman would ask for payment via a pre-paid gift card. If they do, hang up the phone and contact the family member in question. If you or someone you know has paid a scammer with a gift card, report it to the police and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as soon as possible. You may also want to let the company that issued the gift card know, as they may be able to block transactions.

5. Charity fraud

“Many of us open our hearts and our wallets to those in need during the holidays. But it’s important to beware of fraudsters who contact you by phone or mail seeking to exploit your good intentions,” warns Segriff.

The FTC recently reported a holiday scam where an individual receives a call or e-mail from a clergyman. “The bogus e-mails often include the name of the local pastor and a legitimate-looking e-mail address,” Segriff concedes. “But if you take a closer look, some red flags appear.” For example, the e-mail address may not match the one normally used by the church, or it may use a different provider. Or perhaps the message begins with a simple greeting but doesn’t include the recipient’s name. Spelling errors, including the pastor’s name, can also be a red flag.

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 are tax deductible.

You can still deck the halls

While being vigilant is important, there’s no need to be afraid of fraudsters. As long as you follow basic security tips, you can stay safe and enjoy the holiday season.

Listen to the recent UBS On-Air podcast featuring Ellen Segriff, who shares key insights on keeping you and your money safe.

Connect with your UBS Financial Advisor

Discover how to keep yourself safe throughout the holiday season.