‘Tis the season for scams: 10 holiday rip-offs to avoid

by Jeff Rossen, Avni Patel and Jovanna Billington, Today.com

2D9787982-131125-gift-cards-748p.blocks_desktop_mediumWith the holiday shopping madness about to begin, consumer groups say scammers are ready and waiting to exploit the chaos and take advantage of our desire to get the hottest gifts at the best prices.

“The holidays bring out the best in people…and the worst in scammers. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, scammers don’t care if they ruin your holiday plans,” said Carrie Hurt, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Here are 10 scams to watch for:

  • Gift Card Scams

Gift cards are a favorite target for con artists this time of year, according to the BBB. And with retailers estimating gift-card shopping will hit an all-time high — 80 percent of shoppers are expected to buy at least one this holiday season — the BBB is warning consumers to be on the lookout for two sneaky schemes aimed at taking advantage of their popularity.

In one scheme, thieves go into a store, find the gift-card rack and then secretly copy the numbers off the cards, sometimes scratching off the security codes. The thieves then check online or call the 1-800 number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the thieves go on a shopping spree online. By the time you try to use the same card, the money is long gone.

The BBB also warns consumers to be wary of offers for discounted gift cards sold online. Scammers may try to pocket your cash, and use the gift cards for themselves.

How to Protect Yourself
Buy gift cards directly from a reputable retailer. And before you buy, inspect the card to make sure the packaging hasn’t been tampered with and the activation code hasn’t been scratched off. You can also ask a store clerk for a card that’s been kept behind the counter. If you include a gift receipt with the card, it may help get a replacement.

  • Package Theft

With more and more people shopping online this time of year, the BBB is warning people not to leave unattended packages on their doorsteps.

From Seattle to San Diego to Houston, thieves have been caught on camera walking right up to houses and swiping packages right off the doorstep. Police believe the criminals follow delivery trucks into neighborhoods.

How to Protect Yourself
Require a signature for the package and if no one’s going to be home, have the package held at the nearest service location so you can pick it up at your convenience.

  • Counterfeit Retailer Websites

Federal authorities are warning many websites that appear to be selling popular brands could actually be fake. Officials say counterfeiters have stepped up their game in recent years, going beyond peddling phony merchandise on street corners and flea markets to form elaborate criminal networks to perpetrate their schemes.

“What consumers need to be aware of is that as these networks have become more sophisticated, their ability to defraud consumers and legitimate businesses has increased significantly.,” said Lev Kubiak, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.

In the last year alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have shut down 1,500 fake retailer websites, including those appearing to sell high-end brand-name jewelry, popular clothing lines, workout DVDs and top kids’ products.

Many of the websites look nearly identical to real retailer web pages, with similar fonts, graphics, images, logos and layouts. ICE warns these fake sites often send inferior merchandise that falls apart or doesn’t work, or may send nothing at all, instead stealing your personal information and credit card number.

How to Protect Yourself
Officials urge consumers to do their research. Look for a working customer service number or a brick and mortar store and call them to ask if the site you’re looking at is legit. They also say you should always use a credit card instead of a debit card when shopping online, it’s easier to contest the charges. And finally, inspect the websites carefully. If you see grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, that could be a major red flag.

  • Suspicious Social Media Giveaways

Security experts are also warning social media users of suspicious giveaway offers that may pop up on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Researchers at the security software firm Trend Micro say they’ve found suspicious pages advertising raffles for two of the season’s hottest gifts — the Playstation 4 and Xbox One.

Christopher Budd of Trend Micro says these “giveaways” and “raffles” appear to be using popular gaming consoles to lure people into unknowingly signing up for paid text message schemes.

The offers solicit “Likes” or “Shares” to get distributed on social media feeds. Researchers say the more the offer is shared, the more likely people are to buy in. “It exploits what we in security call the circle of trust,” said Budd.

How to Protect Yourself
Be wary of any “giveaways” or “raffles” that direct you to a survey site asking for personal information and your mobile phone number. Only sign up for promotions offered by reputable organizations.

Six Other Scams to Watch For, According to the BBB

  • Malware e-cards: E-mail greeting cards that appear to be from a friend or associate but actually contain a link that will download malicious software onto your computer to steal personal information.
  • Grandparent scams: As families gather for the holidays, scammers will target the elderly with a desperate call or email from a “stranded” grandchild or loved one claiming they’ve had their wallets stolen and need money wired to them immediately.
  • Mall pickpockets: Thieves take advantage of busy malls and frantic shoppers to steal purses and wallets.
  • Bogus coupons: Coupons or discount codes are often sold online and in-person at a fraction of their face value. BBB warns they could be completely worthless.
  • Santa scammers: If you get an email offering to send a personal letter from Santa to your child, be wary. It may be a phishing scheme aimed at collecting personal information for identity theft.
  • Fake charities: Be on the lookout for “sound alike” charities and street-corner collectors. Do you research before giving.

“The best way to avoid holiday scams is to educate yourself about what to look out for, and to be cautious in every situation,” said Hurt.