“The most wonderful time of the year” is here, inviting us to spend time with friends and family, to travel, and to reflect on the memories and events of the past year. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when consumers are more vulnerable to scams that try to take advantage of their holiday spirit.
Whether you plan to shop online, in stores, or both, there some steps you can take that will protect you and your wallet this holiday season.
Gift Card Scams
Gift cards are popular gifts during the holidays, especially for kids and teens. They are flexible, convenient, and ensure the recipient gets something he or she really wants. However, some gift cards aren’t what they appear to be. Watch out for gift cards that include excessive usage fees or short expiration terms. These are common on credit card-style gift cards. The terms are usually listed in fine print on the packaging.
You should also be wary of third-party gift card re-sellers. Some retailers, such as wholesale clubs, can really save you money on bulk gift card purchases. But there are also fraudulent websites that may attempt to sell “discounted” gift cards that have already been used, are fake, or have expired.
Safe Shopping Online
In recent months, the news has been full of stories about cybersecurity, major data breaches, and the importance of protecting your identity. There are precautions you can take to protect your information and transactions when holiday shopping online. First, make sure the website you’re using is legitimate. This is pretty easy for large retailers you use often, but can be harder for smaller online companies.
Before you enter personal or financial information over the internet, verify that the URL (the website address) is preceded by https://. The ‘s’ is important; it means the data you are entering will be encrypted. You may also see a small green ‘lock’ icon in your browser’s address bar to show that the page is secure.
If you’re one of those people who subscribe to retailers’ mailing lists, your inbox will likely be inundated with ads during the holidays. It can be easy to mistake a fraudulent or “phishing” email for a real one. If you receive a “special offer” via email, check the sender’s address and any website links that are included to make sure they’re authentic. Never enter personal or financial data on a page from an unsolicited email link.
Finally, the importance of strong passwords can’t be emphasized enough – not just during the holidays, but year-round. The best passwords are a random combination of capital and lowercase letters and numbers (alphanumeric) and at least one special character such as an exclamation point. In fact, many sites now require that you create passwords this way.
Avoid using personal names, nicknames, or dates as these can be very easy for a hacker to discover. If you find it hard to keep track of your passwords, consider using a service like Dashlane to generate and store strong passwords.
Safe (and Smart!) Shopping in the ‘Real World’
While online scams are a relatively recent phenomenon, the perils of the ‘brick and mortar’ world have been around forever. One of the most common concerns at this time of year is theft. As you know, measures such as locking your vehicle, being aware of your surroundings, and securing your belongings can help protect you from becoming a victim. You should also shield your PIN when using your debit card in a public location.
A new scam that’s been getting a lot of attention lately is the ‘card skimmer.’ Card skimmers can be found almost anywhere, but they are especially prevalent in gas stations and fast food restaurants. They’ve even been found on outdoor ATM machines. Card skimmers are small devices that capture both your card and PIN number which can then be used for fraudulent transactions. Fortunately, card skimmers are easy to spot if you look for them. A quick Google search on card skimmers will yield several examples.
Checking Your Accounts
It’s always a good idea to check your accounts regularly online to monitor them for suspicious activity, especially during the holidays when you may be doing more shopping than usual. The faster you spot an issue, the faster it can be resolved.
When it comes to checking your accounts regularly, make sure you do so at home or over a private and secure connection. Most of us don’t think twice when connecting to free public Wi-Fi because it is everywhere – from McDonald’s and Starbucks to airports and hotels. But visiting sites that contain your personal or financial information could make your data vulnerable on an open network.
A much more traditional scam takes place year-round, but it’s especially common during the holiday season – the ‘bait-and-switch.’ A store will offer a tiny quantity of sought-after gift items in an attempt to sell far more expensive versions of the goods when they run out. They might also offer what seem like incredible savings but require you to buy three or five or ten of that item to get the “savings.”
The best way to avoid the bait-and-switch is to be a savvy shopper. Don’t get caught up in the frenzy of last-minute shopping, “exclusive offers,” or deals that seem too good to be true. You’re far more likely to fall victim to a scam at these times. Establishing a budget and a plan will help you avoid the impulses that make bait-and-switch advertising so profitable for unscrupulous retailers.
The holidays can be a hectic time of year, and the last thing many of us are thinking about is protecting ourselves from theft or fraud. Unfortunately, criminals know this and try to take advantage in both simple and sophisticated ways. Following these tips to avoid holiday scams will help you and yours enjoy a happy (and hopefully!) stress-free holiday season.
For more information on how to keep your financial information safe online, request a call to speak with an advisor at RAA.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as individual investment advice. Actual recommendations are provided by RAA following consultation and are custom-tailored to each investor’s unique needs and circumstances. The information contained herein is from sources believed to be accurate and reliable. However, RAA accepts no legal responsibility for any errors or omissions. Investments in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds may increase or decrease in value. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Any of the charts and graphs included in this blog are not recommendations for the purchase and sale of any security.