Tis the season to be jolly. Laughter. Good company. The spirit of giving. It's all delightful, and even for the Scroogiest of Scrooges out there, it's hard not to enjoy oneself even just a little.
Unfortunately, good times such as this also create a perfect opportunity for the unscrupulous to take advantage. The multitude of potential scams and threats seem to increase exponentially during the holidays. Fake surveys, giveaways and phishing scams are plentiful, sitting there patiently in wait for the next unsuspecting victim.
Data theft is especially rampant, with thieves crafting emails, fake gift cards and shams that look official — like a letter claiming to be from the IRS — to collect sensitive information.
So, though it may be the season for holiday cheer, it's also a time nobody should let their guard down. Vigilance and skepticism, especially when things sound too good to be true, can save a lot of trouble.
In light of it all, here are some holiday scams and hacks everyone should try to avoid this season — and every season going forward.
1. Faux Accommodations
Spending time with family is a huge part of the holidays, but it can be difficult when everyone is spread out. That's precisely why a lot of people travel during this time to visit the people they love.
Sadly, fraudsters know this all too well and have begun setting up fake accommodations listings and websites or even using major services. The trick is to get victims to put down a deposit to reserve their stay, after which the crooks disappear, money in hand.
One common trick thieves use is to claim a credit card payment did not go through — sometimes canceling it themselves — then asking for a direct bank transfer instead. The strategy works particularly well through services like Airbnb, where people work directly with home or property owners to find accommodations.
Scammers behind a fake ski chalet website absconded with €30,000 from one victim who thought they were booking luxury accommodations. It turned out their bank was powerless to help, with little to no recourse available. It's difficult to imagine falling prey to such a scam, but the thieves took time to set up a legitimate-looking, professional website, even going so far as to incorporate photos from real resorts and securing an "https" certificate.
How can people avoid losing money on such a hoax? For starters, companies that ask for a bank transfer are probably not legitimate.
Credit cards or similar payment services that offer more protections are the safest payment method. Second, nobody should book a property without first researching to ensure it's legit. A simple Google search or Street View reference can reveal all anyone would need to know — if pictures on a property's website are different than their real listing online, something is amiss.
2. Social Media Gift Exchange
Secret Santa is a fun holiday tradition, since everyone gets the chance to give and receive mystery gifts. In recent years, the experience has gone digital, with many social networks opting to host an event. Reddit Gift Exchange and Reddit's Secret Santa are great examples of this in action.
It sounds like a lot of fun, and it can be! However, it's also an opportunity for fraudsters to take advantage of someone's goodwill.
A new twist on the old pyramid scheme has appeared across online community groups, encouraging people to purchase and send a gift, with a promise they'll receive several in return. They think they're going to profit from participating. Unfortunately, they get nothing in return and instead end up wasting money on scammers.
People who want to avoid these hoaxes should be wary of what kinds of online communities they frequent, and always research the group before spending money. If they've only been around for a year or less, it's better to avoid taking part until they've built up a little more clout. Established communities like Reddit Gift Exchange often have a long history to back up their claims.
3. Temp Job Phishing
With the term phishing, fake websites and email scams come to mind. It can also happen in the real world, though. Phishing is about purposefully deceiving others to glean information. Shady scammers do this by creating a fake website or email online, or a phony business or contest in the real world.
Holiday or seasonal employees are essential for many businesses, who hire more help during the busy season as a temporary solution. Phishers now set up fake application processes — for employers that don't exist — to collect sensitive information from victims. It's a particularly nasty, real-world phishing scam that lulls unsuspecting victims by promising a job opportunity. Who doesn't need extra money during the holidays?
It's a best practice to apply for a job in person, if possible. If doing so online, savvy people should first ensure the websites are official and not a suspicious domain or URL. Furthermore, it's a red flag if a potential employer asks for credit card information or a Social Security number on a job application.
4. Fake Winnings
Scammers will often set up a fraudulent contest, contacting people who enter to tell them they won a prize such as a cruise. However, there's never a genuine prize involved, just lots of fees.
During the holidays, these kinds of scams become particularly rampant, with people looking to cash in on a little extra luck. Fake giveaways might promise gift cards, popular tech gadgets or toys. Whereas vacation scammers will tell gullible people they've won a trip, fake lottery wins also crop up, where the "winners" receive notification that there is a large sum of money waiting for them. In this kind of attack, the victims must also pay fees or taxes to collect the imaginary prize.
In all these instances, the unscrupulous will request something in return — usually money. Once they have it, they'll abruptly stop communicating, or they might string people along, hoping for a bigger payday. Whatever the case, the victims end up on the losing end.
Cautious people should know never to pay for prize winnings, especially contests, unless they're physically at a raffle event and can see the prizes. But even with raffles, the winners only pay to participate by buying tickets. If they win, they don't have to pay before picking up their prize at the end.
5. Impersonating Apps
The app scene is booming these days too, and why wouldn't it be? Almost everyone carries and uses mobile devices regularly throughout their day, and apps are a primary driver for owning one.
Unfortunately, there are nefarious apps hidden throughout mobile marketplaces. Fraudsters can and will impersonate shopping apps, social media and communication apps, games and even mobile tools — think a flashlight app or calculator.
The shopping apps are especially tricky because thieves use them to collect more than just a name or account information. Users will often input credit and payment information to buy something — which scammers can use to no end.
There are several apps meant to spoof corporate or enterprise tools. People think they're logging into a company service, but instead get taken for a ride, as does their personal information.
Stay Safe! Be Vigilant and Smart!
Luckily, many of these scam and fraud encounters are easy to avoid by being vigilant. People should make sure any URLs they follow are official, as well as email headers, interactive apps and services.
Those who want to participate in any contests, surveys, giveaways or the like should double-check the information they're providing is not too sensitive — like credit or bank info. Research on the history of online communities is also a smart way to avoid losing money to scammers.
Common sense is key to playing it safe all year 'round. Happy holidays, everyone!