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How to avoid becoming a victim of a holiday scam

There are ways to protect yourself this holiday season. Here’s how you can avoid becoming a victim.
Girl shopping online with credit card
1 in 5 people said they’ve given or received a card with no money on it.martin-dm / Getty Images

While you’re gearing up for the holidays, fraudsters may be trying to take advantage of you.

Empty gift cards, bogus charitable solicitations, cyberattacks and thieves who steal packages from your porch aren’t necessarily unique to this time of year.

However, because the holidays tend to be busy, we may not be as aware and prepared against these threats as we normally would be, said Kathy Stokes, director of AARP’s fraud prevention programs.

“If you are aware of the scam, if you learn about it from listening to the news, you are 80% less likely to be scammed,” she said.

“It’s really important to know what the scams look like so you can spot them and not fall for them.”

Jaireme Barrow, 36, knows what it feels like to be the victim of “porch pirates.” He’s had not one but four separate incidents where packages were stolen right off his front porch.

“I couldn’t believe someone was that bold,” said Barrow, who lives in Tacoma, Washington.

There are ways to protect yourself this holiday season. Here’s how you can avoid becoming a victim.

Empty gift cards

More than 70% of Americans plan to buy gift cards for family and friends this season, according to a new AARP survey, which polled 2,842 U.S. adults ages 18 and older in November.

Yet 1 in 5 said they’ve given or received a card with no money on it.

Stokes said that thieves target cards that sit in racks in stores. They get the account number and PIN — and when the card is activated, they are “pinged” and immediately drain the funds.

The best thing to do is to buy gift cards that are behind the counter, since they are more protected, she advised.

If you are getting a card off the rack, look closely to make sure it hasn’t been compromised. The PIN, or personal identification number, is often covered in a type of sticky tape. Scammers peel the tape off, jot down the number and buy replacement sticky tape.

“If you are not paying attention, it is easy to look past,” Stokes said. “If you are really looking at it, you are going to see that it has been manipulated.”

Another option is to buy the gift card directly from the retailer’s website.

However, don’t buy gift cards through online auction sites, as they are often stolen or fake.

Bogus charitable giving

While this is an important time of year for legitimate charities to solicit funds, you should do your due diligence to ensure you aren’t donating to a bogus organization.

Only half of Americans conduct any research before making a monetary donation, the AARP survey found. Of those who did check out a charity, 54% wound up not making the donation based on what they found.

Fraudulent organizations may try to trick you by having a name that is very similar to a legitimate 501(c)(3) group, warned Ashley Post, communications manager at Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities.

Also, scammers often tie their fraud attempt to an important cause, such as breast cancer, or they will set something up in the wake of a crisis or disaster.

“It doesn’t really take more than a couple of minutes to get a sense of a legitimate organization and feel confident about giving,” Post said.

That means if you get a phone call soliciting funds, tell the caller you will go online later to make a gift, or send a check in the mail.

“Legitimate organizations will understand,” Post said.

In addition to, you can check out organizations at,, or

When it comes to crowdfunding, experts suggest only giving to campaigns where you know the person soliciting the funds, or if the person is a friend of someone you know.

Porch pirates

More and more consumers are buying their gifts online. That means there are plenty of opportunities for thieves to steal packages from right in front of your house.

In fact, an estimated 36% of Americans have had a delivered package stolen at least once, according to C+R Research.

After his goods were swiped, Barrow took matters into his own hands — and at the same time came up with his business, The Blank Box. It is a fake package that makes the sound of gunfire when it is picked up. (No real guns are discharged.)

He said he’s heard all sorts of stories, including the thefts of a loved one’s remains and medication.

The thieves “don’t understand the pain they are causing ... for something that is just for a quick buck on their end,” he said.

If you know you will be home at the expected delivery time, be sure when ordering a product to require a signature for delivery so that it won’t be left outside. If that isn’t an option, you can have your package delivered to your office or the residence of someone you know will be home, according to the website for the National Neighborhood Watch.

You can also leave specific drop-off instructions, such as leaving deliveries behind the house or under a bush, or opt for the package to be shipped to a store for pick up. For example, Amazon has “Hub Locker” centers that will hold your package in a secure location for pick up, while UPS offers partner locations where packages can be picked up.

There are also smart locks, which can be put on compatible boxes that delivery people can store packages in.


Beware of emails that want you to click on a link.

“We are seeing more and more fake emails [allegedly] coming from the likes of FedEx or UPS or the U.S. Postal Service,” said AARP’s Stokes.

The same goes with fake emails that purport to be from retailers. They may report a problem with order or an attempted delivery, but it’s really an attempt from cybercriminals to install malware on your computer.

Don’t click on any links. Instead, go directly to the website for the delivery service or retailer and look up your order or delivery using your confirmation or tracking number.

Other things to look for are whether the email is addressed “Dear customer” and not directly to you. If it is, that’s a sign it’s a scam. Also, check that any website you visit is secure by ensuring that its URL starts with an “https” rather than a “http.”

In the end, it’s all about being vigilant.

“We have the power to protect ourselves,” said Stokes.

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-investing app. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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