Unfortunately, the holiday season isn't just a time of giving. It's an opportunity for identity thieves, computer hackers and fraudsters to take what they can from unsuspecting victims.
A lot of the scams at this time of year are cyber-driven, says Bill Kowalski, a former FBI agent and director of operations for corporate investigative services at financial services firm Rehmann. But thieves also use less-sophisticated tactics to steal money or personal information from consumers while they're shopping in stores or looking to give to those in need, he says.
Here are several scams that will be popular this holiday season and tips for avoiding them.
Bogus shipment notifications. Watch out for e-mails notifying you about package shipments. Kowalski says that scammers send out bogus notifications that prompt people to click on links to track packages and those links contain computer viruses. If you're not expecting any shipments, it's easy to recognize these e-mails as fakes. But if you've made purchases online, Kowalski recommends going directly to shipping companies' sites to track your packages rather than clicking on links an any e-mails -- even those that appear to be legitimate.
Used gift cards. A lot of retailers display gift cards at the checkout -- and thieves take advantage of this, says Rip Mason, the CEO of LegalShield, a legal services and identity theft protection provider. They take cards, copy the numbers on them then put the cards back on the rack. The thieves can assess when the cards are purchased and activated and will drain the cards of all their funds -- leaving the consumer with a card that can't be used. So Mason says that if you buy a gift card, ask the sales clerk to give you one from behind the counter.
Malware e-cards. Scammers are taking advantage of the fact that more and more people are sending holiday greetings by e-mail and are sending e-cards with malicious software embedded in them, Mason says. If you receive an e-mail from someone you don't know, don't let curiosity get the best of you. Just delete the e-mail.
Special offers. If you receive an e-mail or text message claiming that you've won a prize or gift card, resist the temptation to respond. The sender likely is a scammer trying to get your personal information or money. Kowalski also says scammers will send texts or e-mails prompting recipients to click on links to access information about a retailer's sale or special offers. Go directly to the retailer's Web site or Facebook page to see if it's having a sale.
Phony Web sites. If you do a Google search for a popular toy your kid wants for Christmas, there's a good chance that some of the results will be links to fake sites or images that have viruses or malware. That's because scammers build sites based on popular search terms. When doing your holiday shopping online, stick with sites you know (see our 15 favorite sites for finding deals online). Scammers also create sites with Web addresses similar to those of legitimate retailers, Kowalski says. The Better Business Bureau reports that several Web sites have cropped up that include the word "overstock" in the domain name, hoping to fool consumers into thinking they are shopping with Overstock.com, a legitimate online retailer. Always type the Web address of a site you wish to visit directly into the browser rather than clicking on links in e-mails or on social media sites. Make sure you have the most updated version of the browser you use, which can flag suspicious sites, and updated virus software on your computer. Look for "contact us" information on sites you visit and make sure "https" appears at the beginning of the url on the payment page.
Malicious apps. Be wary of the apps you download on your phone or Facebook page -- especially free ones that you're prompted by anonymous text messages or Facebook posts to download. Be wary of any app that asks for access to your e-mail account or for any personal information because it likely will be malicious. Even legitimate apps might ask permission to access your personal information, from your birthday to your current location to your list of friends. So before you click install, read the list of permissions being requested by an app to make sure it's not asking for information you don't want to provide.
Fraudulent charities. Scammers hope to take advantage of people's desire to give to those in need during the holidays by sending e-mails or texts asking for contributions. Kowalski says that some are even using copied logos from legitimate charities in e-mails or on fraudulent Web sites. Often you can hover over links in such e-mails and see Web addresses that point to fraudulent sites instead of a legitimate charity's site. Rather than respond to those pleas, visit CharityNavigator.org for reviews of charitable organizations to find a cause that will benefit from your generosity. Don't make large donations in cash and always ask for a receipt.
Eavesdropping. Cyber thieves aren't the only ones taking advantage of consumers. You can easily become a victim if you provide personal information to a sales clerk and someone's listening to your responses, Kowalski says. Avoid giving out your e-mail address, phone number or other similar information that isn't necessary to complete a transaction.
Bait and switch. It may be tempting to get a hot product at a super low price. But if someone approaches you in a public place offering to sell you, say, an iPad for cheap, you'll likely end up with an inferior product, Mason says. Scammers also use e-mail or online auctions to promote products at really low prices and often ask for payments to be wired. The Better Business Bureau warns against sending cash to strangers. In these situations, the consumer sends money but never receives the merchandise. Only purchase from trusted retailers to ensure that you're getting what you pay for, Mason says.