The holidays are hunting season for scammers. Shoppers eager to find deals can sometimes find themselves on fake websites, or sending money to an impostor.
WMAR's Mallory Sofastaii is counting down the 12 Scams of Christmas, so your money goes toward presents or charity, and not to scrooges hoping to ruin your holiday.
1. Unusual Forms of Payment
If you find that one-of-a-kind gift, but the seller is requesting payment in gift cards, wire transfer, or a peer-to-peer platform like Zelle or Venmo, Loyola University Maryland accounting professor JP Krahel recommends asking yourself this: "Are they demanding I make a payment in a certain way because they know they get all the protection and I get none?" said Krahel.
Credit cards offer the best protection from fraud. Unlike debit or cash apps, there's a third-party between your money and the person you're giving it to.
"Zelle is a digital wallet. It's an ability for you to reach in and just give cash out, there's very little protection there,” said Krahel. “Forms like bitcoin is the least protected form of payment. Once I send that out, I will never find it again, there is no protection there."
Only use apps like Venmo, Zelle, Facebook and Google Pay with people you know. Venmo says it in its terms, it's not to be used for payment of goods or services unless it's with an authorized merchant.
2. Job scams
It's not too late to find a job this holiday season. Major retailers are hiring thousands of temporary workers, but before agreeing to work for anyone, watch out for job scams.
You should be skeptical if the person offers to hire you on the spot without an interview or if they say you need to buy something first like office supplies or pay an upfront fee of some kind.
Some scammers may even send you a check before you've done any work, or they're phishing for information.
“Before we can hire you we need you to verify your credit report. We need that information. So job scams are designed to collect personal information and this is a tricky one because we are familiar with, if I'm going to get a job, I'm going to give my social security, I'm going to give my direct deposit information so you really want to be cautious that you've been hired by a real company,” said Angie Barnett, president & CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving greater Maryland.
Do research on the company. Search their address, phone number, and company website. Call someone in their human resources department and verify that the company is currently hiring.
3. Secret Santa/Sister Exchange (with a twist!)
You may have received an invitation to participate in a gift exchange where if you send someone a gift, you could get around 36 in exchange. It works like a chain letter, but really it's a pyramid scheme. Plus, many people report never receiving their gifts.
Something new we're seeing this year is a secret sister version where participants mail bottles of wine.
"It's not legal to send wine or ship wine in all states, so you could be violating a state law somewhere but most importantly, the U.S. Postal Service wants to let us know that this is considered a multi-level marketing scheme," said Barnett.
Pyramid schemes carry penalties that can include fines, law suits, even jail time. Also keep in mind, some mail delivery services like USPS don't allow the mailing or shipment of alcohol.
4. Fake coupons/Free gift cards
There are lots of deals out there, but not all of them are real. Offers for free gift cards and coupons have been circulating on social media including one for a $75 Costco coupon if you fill-out a form.
According to Costco, this is a hoax and it happens almost every year.
Also, be careful of gift card offers such as paying $10 for $100 in gift cards. Or texts saying you were randomly selected to win a $1,000 gift card to Walmart with a suspicious link.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, however, we have seen companies like Target giving away gift cards in exchange for something.
5. Look-Alike Websites
If you're quick to click on the best deal, your personal information could be compromised.
Scammers cast wide nets, sending emails with links to websites that are designed to look like reputable retailers.
"We may be shopping at Macy's but it's 'Macey's.' It's misspelled websites, it's websites that come from social media, and they're set-up by scammers for the purpose of deliberately getting you to go to those websites and they collect your credit card," said Barnett.
- Before going to the website, hover over the link to view the URL
- Look for misspellings in emails and the sender's email address
- For secure shopping, verify there's a padlock next to the URL and it begins with "https" on the checkout page
- Also do research on the website. Google their address and the website's name followed by the word "complaints" or "scam" to see if anything suspicious comes up
6. Puppy Scams
It's a dream for some kids to wake up Christmas morning with a puppy under the tree, but puppy scams can cost parents thousands of dollars and leave kids disappointed.
Shoppers fall in love with the pictures posted online and arrange to have the puppy shipped, but then something happens. The seller needs more money for shipping, or they say the puppy is ill and you have to pay for its treatment.
- Do a reverse google image search. It's a huge red flag if you see the same photo on multiple sites
- Search the seller's business address and phone number
- Never pay using Western Union, MoneyGram, or gift cards. Always use a credit card so you can dispute the charges if something goes wrong.
- Adopt, don't shop and check out your local animal shelter for pets in need of a loving home
7. Counterfeit Gifts
It may be tempting to buy gifts at the lowest prices online, but be careful of sites advertising products way below market value. That could be a sign that the item is counterfeit. An Incorpro study found that one in four people have bought something online that turned out to be counterfeit. And knock-off products aren't just limited to luxury items, cosmetics, toys and games, medicine as well as clothing are sold by counterfeiters. To better ensure you're buying the real thing:
- Know who you're buying from: research the company's reputation, business address, and look for any typos or grammatical errors on their website
- Watch out for fake reviews
- Use a credit card
8. Phony Charities
For those feeling charitable this holiday season, make sure your donation is going to a legitimate non-profit organization. Be careful of sound-alike names or groups posing as well-known charities. You can also research how much the non-profit spends on overhead expenses vs. programs using Charity Navigator.
9. Travel Scams
If you're looking for a place warm to go, be aware of bogus deals offering vacations at a steep discount. There are a number of bargains out there, but to avoid travel scams, consumers should:
- Research the company. Search their name followed by "complaints" or "scams"
- Only use a credit card if you're unsure of the seller
- Ask for references
10. Romance Scams
Many turn to online dating sites to find relationships, however, some have found romance scammers instead. According to a BBB study , victims in the U.S. and Canada have reported losing nearly $1 billion over the last three years to romance scams, and that number is estimated to be low as many victims don't report their losses out of embarrassment or humiliation. To save yourself from heartbreak and theft, never send money to someone you've never met in person.
RELATED: Romance scam victim thought she was being courted by a wealthy engineer
- Ask specific questions about details given in a profile
- Do your research. Many scammers steal photos from the web to use in their profiles. You can do a reverse image lookup using images.google.com to see if the photos on a profile are stolen from somewhere else. You can also search online for a profile name, email, or phone number to see what adds up and what doesn’t.
11. Fake Shipping Notifications
Online shoppers can expect to see a delivery notification from the seller, but you receive an email out of the blue, it could be a phishing scam. False notification emails try to trick you into clicking on a link or giving away personal information. If you get a tracking notification, and you don't know what it's for:
- Never click on suspicious links. Hover over the URL to see where it's taking you
- Keep track of your purchases and use the company's website to check on orders
- You are not required to pay money to receive your package, that payment was made when you make your purchase
- Delivery services do not need personal information to deliver your items
12. CBD claims
A buzz product that's become a popular gift idea is CBD, or cannabidiol. CBD is a chemical compound that comes from the cannabis plant, but unlike THC, it doesn't get users high. CBD products have been used to treat anxiety as well as pain relief. If you're considering trying or gifting CBD products, there are few things you should be aware of:
- Consumer Reports cited a study in which 26 of 84 samples of CBD oils purchased online contained the amount of CBD claimed on their labels. Several had high THC levels, and others had less CBD than advertised or none at all. Consumer Reports recommends looking for companies located in states that have legalized recreational and medical use of cannabis, since they tend to have stricter standards
- Be cautious of companies claiming their products can heal or cure certain ailments. The FTC has cracked down on CBD sellers making health-related claims without having the science or research to support their statements
This story was originally published by Mallory Sofastaii at WMAR.