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A Santa holds a baby at Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco, on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.
Haven Daley, Associated Press

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12 scams to watch out for this holiday season

The Better Business Bureau just released its naughty list of the top 12 Christmas-related scams

The ad caught my eye as I was looking for a unique Christmas present for my garden-loving sister. A manufacturer was going out of business due to the pandemic. Half-price closeout deals on yard art! Wonderful!

The video showed a beautiful wind-spinner that bloomed and closed in the breeze like a blossom. I couldn’t part with my $60 fast enough.

The box that eventually arrived was the size and thickness of a chessboard. When assembled, yard art that had looked imposing online was barely noticeable in a planter on the porch where I put it after being too embarrassed to gift it.

And it rusted overnight.

Welcome to holiday shopping, where not all ads are true and scams are sprinkled like spices among the season’s true deals. Google and the Cybercrime Support Network predict that over the next year scammers will steal $3 billion from shoppers like you and me.

The Better Business Bureau marks the inevitability of holiday scams with what it calls “The Naughty List.” It highlights websites that aren’t real selling items that don’t exist or bear no resemblance to the ads, package delivery scams, fake charities and more. My online find was an example of the most common holiday hoax. But there are plenty of others, too.

Here’s a look at the top 12 holiday scams, according to the Better Business Bureau:

  • Misleading social media ads. These can include ads for items that are never sent, counterfeit items and being charged for free trials you never agreed to. The bureau said to visit BBB.org to check out reviews and a business’ profile before you buy.
  • Social media gift exchanges. It’s a riff on the old chain letter, where you send something like a $10 gift and supposedly reap a pyramid of presents in return. Or you submit your email to a list where folks send money to others to “pay it forward.” There’s now even a “Secret Santa Dog” scam.
  • Holiday-themed apps. Look into the apps that let your child talk to Santa, for example. Some are legitimate, but you need to read privacy policies to see what information is being gathered. Look for reviews. Some may contain malware. Ho Ho hope not.
  • Reports of compromised accounts. The bureau’s scam tracker has heard of malicious actors claiming that popular payment accounts like PayPal, Amazon or a bank have been compromised. By email, phone call or text, consumers are warned about suspicious activity and prompted to protect themselves by logging in. Be careful.
  • Free gift cards. Supposedly, all you have to do is provide personal information so you can receive the gift. Don’t even open the email. Definitely don’t click any links.
  • Holiday job offers. Everyone knows retailers hire more help during the holidays, but be careful. What’s packaged as opportunity may be an excuse to steal money and personal information. Vet holiday job offers diligently.
  • Look-alike websites. Be careful of links within emails. Hover over them with your cursor to see where they reroute. Pay attention to URLs.
  • Fake charities. The bureau reports that 40% of all charitable donations come in near the end of the year. Because COVID-19 canceled so many fundraising activities, genuine charities may seek donations online. Crooks absolutely do. Watch out for fraudulent charities and scammers pretending to be individuals in need. Check out a charity at Give.org or on the Canada Review Agency site. If you want to donate online, go directly to the organization’s website. Pay with a credit card.
  • Fake package tracking. Scammers sometimes send fake shipping details and confirmations with links. Clicking on them may enable malware to infest your computer or provide scammers with access to your private information.
  • Bogus virtual event charges: As some holiday events, such as craft fairs, have moved online, scammers have followed and started selling fake tickets. They’re after credit card information, so ask the organizer if the event has a fee. If so, pay with a credit card.
  • Super-low prices on high-end items. You might have stumbled on a deal. But it’s more likely that very low-priced jewelry item, piece of designer clothing or electronic gadget is counterfeit or a cheap knockoff. The bureau said to be especially careful when buying popular items like Baby Yoda or game consoles through social media sites.
  • Puppy scams. If you’re considering adding a fur kid to the family this holiday season, see the barker before you bite. Pet scams are on the rise.

Google and the Cybercrime Support Network created an online resource called Scam Spotters to educate consumers and help them protect themselves. The chief advice offered is to slow down and be sure. If someone’s rushing you to donate, don’t. Your money will still be good — and needed if the charity is genuine — in a few days. Use that time to check things out.

Experts also recommend checking out the details you’re hearing. Look up the organization or retailer yourself and call them or visit their website. Don’t just assume you’re being told the truth.

Keep this advice in mind: “If you think a payment feels fishy, it probably is.”

Lookout, a company that sells security privacy and identity theft protection, says there’s a lot consumers can do to protect themselves if they plan to shop online.

The company recommends that people be “especially wary” if asked to update password or account information. Find the company’s phone number independent of the request and call the company directly.

It also recommends not paying with prepaid gift cards. If a merchant asks for your gift card number and pin, that’s not a standard business practice and you will likely find your card depleted. Pay with a credit card, monitor your statement and, if something suspicious is charged, dispute the charge.

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