Most of us look forward to Christmas as a time to share happy moments with loved ones and make merry. Since gifting is a major part of a Christmas tradition and celebration, people are eager to go shopping. This year is a bit different because more people are willing to search for Christmas deals online. However, you need to be extra careful as scammers are also looking for opportunities to swindle you of your money.

This article aims to inform you about the most common Christmas scams to watch out for in 2020 and how to avoid them. It also offers you tips on how to save on your Christmas shopping by finding the best deals.

Top 8 Christmas Scams

Below is a list of the most common Christmas scam 2020 to look out for.

1. Social Media Gift Exchange Scams

The most common social media gift exchange scams are the “Secret Sister” gifting online program, also commonly referred to as “Secret Santa”. The secret sister exchange gift scam first emerged in 2015.

Usually, you are invited to join the exchange program either via email or social media link. As part of the sign-up process, you are asked to provide your name, address, and other personal information. You are also required to invite a few more friends to the exchange program. You then send at least one of the other members a gift. The gifts range from a bottle of wine to gift cards. In exchange, you are promised to receive up to 36 gifts from fellow members.

Secret Sister scam alert

While this sister exchange program sounds like a noble and fun cause, BBB warns that it is an illegal pyramid scheme while the U.S Postal Inspection Service considers it a form of gambling. Participants can be charged with mail fraud which is subject to fines and jail time.

For members, sending out one gift to a sister somewhere may feel like a good way to celebrate Christmas 2020. However, members keep sending gifts and none receives any as promised. All the gifts end up in the scammers' hands.

How to stay safe: If you receive an invite whether via email or social media to join the secret sister program or other similar gift exchange programs, ignore it. For social media invites, report the post or photo. Ultimately, do not give your information through unsolicited links.

2. Social Media Networks Giveaways 

This Christmas season you are likely to come across numerous giveaways including links to get free coupons and gift cards. Some scammers set up a social media contest or raffle where you sign up with your personal information for a chance to win some free Christmas gifts. In most cases, you will be provided with a link that directs you to a page where you are supposed to access the giveaway. Beware that the link may contain malware or virus which embeds itself on your device hence stealing your personal and credit card information.

In some instances, scammers set up fake social media pages under the disguise of top celebrities or popular brands. They run giveaways on the fake social media pages and ask you to like, comment, and share the posts for a chance to win the giveaway. The scammers then send you direct messages asking for your personal information.

Social Media Christmas scam

How to stay safe: Be on the lookout for free coupons for Christmas scam 2020. Ignore too-good to be true social media offers no matter how tempting they might be. With that said, some companies have genuine social media giveaways. Before participating in them, ensure that they are published on the company’s official social media page and the terms and conditions are clearly stipulated.

3. Phony Online Charities

This is one of the most common Christmas scams where scammers take advantage of people’s generosity and sensitivity towards those in need. It has been evidenced that people feel the need to help the fellow men more intense around this time of the year, and scammers know that. For that reason, they set up fake online charities.

So, before you decide to make a donation to the first charity to steal your heart, always keep in mind that it may be a fake organization. Unfortunately, although it’s a sick practice, that does happen and scammers get away with thousands of dollars every year. 

How to stay safe: Don’t allow Christmas scams or anything else to push you away from helping the disadvantaged and needful fellow men. However, do check out charities before donating and only give money to reputable ones. And, before you click on a charity link, Google the charity organization, and then type in its address manually. 

4. Fake Shipping Notification Emails

It has been evidenced that one month before and one month after Christmas, shipping companies have the greatest package volume. A lot of consumers are eager to take advantage of fantastic Christmas deals. They rush to make all purchases much earlier.

It means that there is a huge amount of products being shipped all around the globe; products that the people have ordered and need them delivered asap. To take advantage of that urgency, scammers send out fake shipping notification emails about an alleged shipping problem, asking for people’s personal information so that their “shipping/delivery issue” could be resolved. 

Below you can find an example of such a fake shipping email. Pay attention to the link. It is not a valid UPS link:

Fake UPS delivery

So, if you have indeed made an online purchase, and receive such an email, make sure you check out the sender and the purported product mentioned in the email. If nothing looks familiar to you, quickly toss the email to your junk folder. These fake shipping notification emails will include links that you should click (“Download an electronic copy of your delivery” in our example above).

If you do, you will be asked to sign in to your eBay or Amazon account (or whatever other site) to resolve the problem. The idea is to steal your log in details and use it against you. This holiday scam is also used to download viruses, spyware, or other unwanted software on to your computer or mobile device. Scam artists use malware to steal personal data, send spam, and commit fraud.

How to stay safe: To protect yourself against such holiday scams, act with caution. For instance, if you receive an Amazon notification, open up a new tab in your browser and type in Amazon’s address. Do this because many scammers set up fake (look-alike) shopping websites (you can tell by checking the URL of the website you are being redirected to - it will contain the name of a well-known brand BUT will also contain extra words and/or small spelling mistakes).

For example, you may click on a link included in your notification email and be redirected to a website that looks just like Amazon. If you enter your login credentials, the scammer(s) will steal your personal data. So, open up a new tab in your browser to log in to your account and check your messages/notifications. If something is problematic with the delivery or shipping of your package, it will be shown there. Do the same with any other website you receive a shipping notification email from. 

5. Fake E-Cards

Sadly, this type of a Christmas scam also hurts the feelings of the receiver and can spoil their festive spirit. Fake e-card notification emails sending a virus and Trojan horses are becoming more and more difficult for a typical antivirus to detect. So, you may receive an email urging you to click on a link to view the e-card someone has sent you. If you recognize the sender’s name, then you are probably safe to read their Christmas wishes. However, take note that it could also be a scammer that has spoofed the name of a person you know. 

How to tell whether an e-card is fake or not?

Watch for the following red flags:

  • The e-card contains an attachment or a link with an “.exe” extension. “.exe” files are actually executable commands that can easily download a virus on your device if you allow them to run (by clicking on the corresponding link in the e-card). 
  • The sender is identified as a “secret admirer” or a “friend”. 
  • There is no confirmation code that allows you to open the e-card at the card company’s website. 
  • You need to share additional personal information to get the e-card.

Look at the fake greeting card email below. It is written in a friendly manner and looks rather legitimate. But, if you happen to click the link, you will download infections malware directly to the system. The consequences can be really damaging. You can lose your credit card details, banking passwords, personal data. Scammers will be able to track your e-mails, send spam, etc.:

Christmas ecard scam

How to stay safe: Never opening e-cards sent from anonymous senders is an easy way to avoid this type of holiday scam. Instead, go to the card company’s website and open the card. For example, for American Greetings cards, visit their website and click on “e-card pickup”. You will then be asked to punch in the confirmation code you have received in your email. 

6. Problematic, Fake or Low-Quality Products

Although we are only humans and mistakes do happen, especially during a season of huge Christmas sales. It appears that some companies have made it a habit to mislead customers into purchasing products that are either broken, of a lower quality or not the one(s) seen in the photos. As you will realize, such Christmas scams can ruin the holidays of small children that are eagerly looking forward to receiving their gift from Santa.

For example, in one LotsofStuff customer review, the customer complained that the company shipped the wrong item. Initially, the customer thought that it was a genuine mistake on the part of the company. However, after reaching out to them for an exchange, the customer service claimed that they had not received any pictures. When the reviewer pressed on with a request for an exchange, they were asked to wait for feedback from the warehouse. It has since been 3 months and the issue has not been resolved.

LotsofStuff Christmas scam

There have also been concerns in regards to specific companies’ operations. There are reported instances of employees misrepresenting companies, taking money for a service but never indicating that the customer made an order.

For example, a Lifetime Fitness review (#1975912) indicates that an employee took money for a temporary membership with instructions to cancel the membership after one and a half months. However, they continued to be charged after the temporary membership and the customer service representative was rude when the customer attempted to have the subscription canceled.

How to stay safe: Make sure you check out the Pissed Consumer database. There are thousands of reviews from consumers like you that have had a negative experience with a company. You will find information about what its customer service is like, whether a merchant delivers on time, and more. Just type in the name of the company or product you are about to purchase and see if you get any hits in our search base. Another way to protect yourself against holiday scams is to use the BBB Scam Tracker and see if there are any scams reported in or around your area.

7. Delivery Scams

In this type of scams, you purchase a product or service online but it is never delivered.  For instance, in a Chime Bank complaint (#1830853) on PissedConsumer, the customer complained that they paid $650 via the online platform to hire a chef, but the chef never showed up. The customer was particularly disappointed with Chime Bank for their poor customer services with no solution to the issue.

I had a dinner party planned to be catered on Christmas Eve where I had 30 people to my home for a dinner celebration. Upon paying my chief to cater the party, $650, he no showed me and I had 30 people with zero food to serve, didn’t answer my calls after that and blocked my telephone number…

8. Phishing Malware Apps

A holiday scam that aims at infecting your smartphone with malware (pretty much like hackers use malicious software to hack your computer). During the festive season, scammers spread out fake shopping ads on various app stores. To get the deals advertised, though, you need to type in your personal information (i.e. banking details). You see where this is going, right? 

How to stay safe: Only download trusted apps that have received lots of positive reviews. Also look at the negative reviews. What do people complain about (see image above)? It is also recommended for you to upgrade your antivirus frequently. 

How to Stay Safe While Shopping During Christmas 2020

  • Stay vigilant. Christmas deals usually look very enticing but, do not drop your guard. Avoid any suspicious and too good to be true offers.
  • Only shop on secure websites. Websites that have https at the beginning of the URL are generally secure. If the URL has http without S, it is likely that if you provide your personal information and credit card details, they will be accessible to hackers.
  • Only use ONE Credit CardUsing a prepaid card or a credit card with a low limit will allow you to do your online holiday shopping a tad easier and safer. Plus, it will simplify things for you as you will only have one account to monitor for unusual activity. Also, it is recommended to avoid using a debit card for your online purchases. This is because in the event of a scam, the card issuer will have to fight to get its money while if a scam involves your debit card, you will be the one trying to get your money back. 
  • Do your HomeworkThere is a handy way to determine how long a website has been in existence and whether it was thrown up a couple of days ago to hit on seasonal shoppers. In the address bar, type “site:” and then the name of the company you want to check. For example, if you wanted to check out Pissed Consumer, you would need to type “site:pissedconsumer.com”. Once you hit enter, you will get all the pages that Google has indexed. If the company is old, you will get 100s or even 1000s of pages indexed. Click on the “search tools” > “Any Time” > “Custom Range” (“Any Time” scrolldown menu). You will be able to search a range of dates. 
  • Shop EarlyLeaving your holiday shopping to the last minute is always burdened with increased anxiety and, in some cases, desperation (last-minute shopping does not leave you with much choice/options so you will probably end up buying the first thing that pops out). This makes you rush things and not focus on identifying red flags and tell-tale signs of a Christmas fraud. Makes sense considering all that pressure to find the perfect gift the soonest possible. To escape frustration, it is better to start shopping before the big rush. Do your research and take your time before you decide which proven business you will purchase from.
  • Check online reviews. This applies whether you are shopping on a well-known platform or a newer platform. You will easily find the top complaints about the company hence be able to determine if the company is legitimate. It is advisable to check various review websites to get a clear sense of the company’s reliability. Also, search for “company’s name + scam” to see any reported cases of scam about the company.
  • Reach out to a company’s customer service to verify any suspicious offer you may come across. If you are uncertain about a particular deal, contact the company’s customer service to ascertain it.
  • Install antivirus software on your computer and phone. As long as the antivirus is up to date, it will catch any malware and viruses before they can infect your device. Some antiviruses will even warn you about suspicious links and websites before opening them.

How to Find Legit Christmas Deals

Below are  tips to help you find legit Christmas offers in 2020:

Do your shopping on specific sale drop days.

Products prices are greatly subsidized on days such as the Black Friday, Amazon Prime Day, and Cyber Monday among others. While these days are several weeks ahead of Christmas, with prior planning you can take advantage of them to do most of your Christmas shopping.

Follow your favourite stores on social media.

Most businesses have legit sales and promotions during the holidays that are posted exclusively on their social media pages or through their newsletters. Follow their official social media pages and sign up for their newsletters to be in the know about ongoing deals.

Use coupon codes.

Coupon codes can help you save up to 15% on your Christmas shopping. There are numerous shopping apps and websites that offer legit coupon codes. Before you check out an order, check if there are any coupon codes online. If the coupon code has a specific validity date, wait for the right day to complete your transaction.

Leverage on free shipping promos.

Most stores offer free shipping all-year-round on a given minimum order amount. Get clear about what you would like to buy then check various stores to see if you can find most of the items in one store. This will increase your chances of reaching the minimum required amount to be eligible for free shipping. Another option for saving on shipping costs is to buy online but opt for at-the-store pick-up.

Beat dynamic pricing strategies.

Some retailers use cookies to track your browsing history and location hence increasing your prices. To outsmart this pricing strategy, clear your browsing history, delete cookies, and switch to incognito mode.

Leverage on cashback apps.

Cashback apps such as Rakuten partner with online stores to offer customers a rebate on the total purchase amount. Although the rebate amount per purchase may seem insignificant, over time it adds up.

Alternatively, if you are a frequent shopper at a given store throughout the year, it is a great idea to join their rewards program. You may be eligible for some discounts towards the end of the year.

Christmas scams are prevalent, therefore, it is important to take precautionary measures. However, there are legit Christmas deals available that you can benefit of. Stay safe during Christmas 2020 and check reviews to avoid scams while shopping.

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Legal disclaimers:

1. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide any legal, medical, accounting, investment or any other professional advice as individual cases may vary and should be discussed with a corresponding expert and/or an attorney.

2. All or some image copyright belongs to the original owner(s). No copyright infringement intended.