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6 holiday shopping scams (and how to avoid them)

While you're scouring the Web for the best deals, scammers are working overtime to steal your data and your hard-earned cash.
Image: A woman online shopping at online fashion retailer Reebonz
Can’t believe you’re getting luxury goods 75 percent off the retail price from that flash sale site? Hold off the celebration and do some investigating. Nicky Loh / Getty Images

We may have just gone on a shopping spree during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but many of us are still gearing up to shop for the holidays, with much of the activity occurring online. According to the 2017 Deloitte holiday retail survey, 84 percent of shoppers will be using laptops, desktops, smartphones and social media to tackle their list this year. While e-commerce may be more convenient and often more discount-friendly (hello, promo codes!) than shopping in-store, it also carries more risk. Scammers are all over the web and this is their favorite time of year; in 2016, fraud attempts during the holiday season spiked by 31 percent, data from ACI Worldwide shows.

We consulted consumer protection experts to highlight the most common scams being seen so far this holiday season, and provided tips on how to avoid them:

1. The Gift Card Scam

A new survey by WalletHub found that for the eleventh consecutive year, gift cards top the list of popular presents, with 41 percent of Americans saying that’s what they want for the holidays. Unfortunately, gift cards are also a favorite target for thieves, not only in-store, but also online.

“As the demand for gift cards has exploded in the past five years, we've seen the emergence of gift card exchanges,” says Michael Lai, CEO of Sitejabber, an online business review platform. “These are platforms that allow you to sell your unused gift cards at a discount.”

It’s a great idea, but the problem is that often these gift cards don’t ever show up — or they arrive already used. You risk getting either less than you thought you were getting, or nothing at all. This is because, as Lai explains, “gift cards have a barcode or a number that once exposed, can be used by anyone.”

The safest way to shop for a discounted gift card is to go through a site that has a clearly stated guarantee policy. “Reputable sites are addressing this very issue, so read the fine print.” But your best bet is paying full price from the actual retailer.

2. The Counterfeit Goods Scam

Can’t believe you’re getting those new Christian Louboutin pumps 75 percent off the retail price? Hold off the celebration and do some investigating. They may be knock-offs.

“Counterfeit goods have been a problem persistently in the e-commerce space for a while, but it tends to flare up around this time,” says Lai. “We've seen people write reviews on sites selling these [heavily discounted brand name] gifts where they've returned the item in-store and the retailer says, ‘This isn't one of our products.’”

Lai says this is especially common on “boutique websites or those that have flash sales.” Before purchasing, make sure you’re going through a well-reviewed outlet that's based in the U.S.

3. The E-Holiday Card Scam

Any scam is awful, but this one may take the cake for the meanest. Fraudsters are sending out what look like digital holiday cards to your email, but are, in fact, ways to rob you.

As Aaron Higbee, CTO and Co-Founder of PhishMe notes, these emails appear to be coming from any popular e-Card site and include a link for you to view the card, but the link is malicious.

“There are a few ways to tell the e-Card is a fraud including the sender email address seems off, the email is not personalized to the recipient or when you hover your cursor over the link it doesn’t match the website it says it is from,” says Higbee.

4. The Corrupt Coupon Scam

There are a ton of sites that deal solely in providing users with coupon and promotional discount codes to use when online shopping. Thieves have latched on to the trend. The key is to not enter any personal information.

“The best coupon websites do not require you to buy anything or register to use their coupons,” says Lai. “If you have to enter in your personal information, it might be a phishing scam. Giving away your cell phone number just to get a coupon code may also be a bad idea as you could get bombarded with marketing calls.”

5. The ‘Buy Online, Pick Up’ In Store Scam

Many retailers provide the ease of buying online and then picking up in-store, eliminating wait time and shipping fees, which is a pretty cushy set-up. But as Don Bush, VP of Marketing at Kount, a fraud protection platform, warns that criminals can interfere with your best-laid plans.

“Criminals will use fake IDs, stolen financial information like credit cards and go around ordering from several stores online, go in store pick up the items and before the retailer can determine that they have been taken, all the goods are long gone,” says Bush. “Many retailers have two different system for online and in-store, and by the time the two reconcile, the damage is done. Criminals do this going from city to city during the extra busy holiday season relying on the fact that between systems not talking to each other efficiently, busy workers, and loose policies around online orders picked up in stores, they can make off with thousands of dollars worth of goods in each city they visit.”

The onus is on the retailer to take extra precaution and check identification in-store. Look into the retailer’s policy and call if necessary.

6. The Not Delivered In Time (Or At All) Scam

As the clock clicks closer to Christmas, there’s more consumer concern over whether an item will arrive in time for the holiday. Dishonest vendors are well aware of our worries (and our procrastinating tendencies), and some will falsely promise you an item is both in stock and able to arrive by a desired date.

These scams are seen predominantly around hot tech items, says Lai, adding: “Before you order your drones, self-balancing electric scooters or tablets, beware of where it will be shipping from as many affordable gadgets are manufactured in overseas countries and you may have problems with your gifts. Companies may say a product is currently in stock but then you never receive, or receive it well after Christmas.”

If you order your product domestically, you should be fine, though sometimes there are issues that are beyond the retailer’s control such as weather. Try and get your shopping done as early as possible to avoid any complications here, and also, always use either a credit card or PayPal.

“Credit card payments and PayPal transfers are all easily trackable, and often they’ll refund your money if the goods don’t arrive. If you paid through check or wire, there is usually no recourse of action beyond just trying to get in touch with the company and spreading the word about your experience.”

Another rule to keep at the top of your mind when shopping online: If it sounds too good to be true, well, maybe it’s time for a good old-fashioned day at the mall. At least we know those clearance bins are the real deal.

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