Holiday Scams: Big Ones to Watch Out For & Expert Tips to Protect Yourself

Hacker thief with santa hat stealing information from a credit card.
domoyega / Getty Images/iStockphoto

One present that most people won’t want to open this year — a notice from your bank or credit card that you’ve been scammed out of money or that your identity has been compromised. Yet the holiday season is one of the most vulnerable times of the year when people become victims of fraud. 

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“Scam artists love holidays. You don’t want to become the gift that keeps on giving, which you will be if you’re targeted,” says cybersecurity expert Adam Levin, who provides some helpful tips on protecting yourself during the most wonderful time of the year for digital thieves.

Levin brings 30-plus years of experience in cybercrime and fraud and is the co-founder of Credit.com, former director of consumer affairs for New Jersey and host of the chart-topping podcast What the Hack with Adam Levin. He brings years of knowledge to his advice but also stays up on the latest scams to help people avoid falling into the traps.

As he previously shared with GOBankingRates.com, a big one this year is text alert scams, particularly those that send people messages saying there are issues with orders or deliveries. In these cases, Levin says, you should never click on a link in the text message; go directly to the source — e.g., UPS or FedEx — to verify any issues with your shipment. 

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But there are also some other scams to watch out for, and Levin offers advice for what to do if you are targeted.

Watch Out for All the “-ishing” Attempts

That includes general “phishing” via e-mails (for example, those addressed as “Dear Amazon customer”), “spear phishing” where your name is actually in the e-mail and makes it look authentic and “vishing,” or voice over Internet protocol communications. The latter might be someone posing as the IRS, your bank or a retailer trying to get a hold of you. 

“This time of year, we have the pantheon of ‘-ishings,'” says Levin, who notes to never open a link or an attachment from an unknown source. He adds one thing to watch out for, particularly during a phone call, is when they want you to authenticate yourself. 

“Especially during the holiday season when you are shopping more, they might try to tell you, ‘We noticed suspicious activity in your account. We want to confirm you are you. This is your credit card number, right?’ And they have that number and expiration date but all they need is for you to flip that card over and give the security code and — boom! — they are in and can now use your card for purchases.”

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Or, it might be a scammer saying there’s a chance you could be a victim of identity theft and they need your Social Security number to confirm. 

A good rule of thumb to remember, says Levin, is to never give out personal info — especially if it’s someone who initiates the communication.

“If they contact you, why do you have to authenticate yourself? They contacted you.”

Be Careful With Holiday Gift Cards

The holidays are gift card central, but there are a few things to watch out for when it comes to purchasing them. First, says Levin, if you’re buying one for a gift recipient, pick the card that’s as close to the cash register as possible. 

“What happens is scammers go into stores at weird hours when employees aren’t looking. They’ll take cards and scratch the back to get the authentication code, cover it up and put it back on the rack,” Levin explains.

When you buy these cards, you’re basically giving the scammer free money, and your giftee will be left with an invalid amount.

“If the gift card you choose is behind the counter, it will be a lot safer,” he adds.

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There are also other scams in which fraudsters might pose as the IRS and say you can pay off your debts with gift cards. “Think about the absurdity of paying the IRS with iTunes cards,” says Levin, noting they are easy money for scammers because, like cash, you can’t trace it.

Another gift card scam involves ads offering “incredible discounts” on gift cards for popular brands and stores such as Apple, Target, Nordstrom, etc.

“And people fall for it,” Levin says. “If they’re saying you can pay a significantly discounted price for a gift card, it’s just not logical. Always take a minute to consider the offer and its validity before responding.”

Pay Attention to Holiday Charity Scams

The holidays are the season of giving, which unfortunately means holiday charity scams are big business for some fraudulent groups.

“People feel more inclined to give at this time of year,” says Levin, who notes charities providing for the people of Ukraine is a big one because the crisis has tugged at many people’s heart strings. “Scammers figured that out and came up with fake listings for charities.” 

Another one he says to watch out for is contributions for the upcoming Senatorial runoff election in Georgia.

“Be careful with any communication from a ‘candidate,'” he adds, noting it’s always best to go directly to the official website of the source where you want to send donations rather than accepting solicitations. 

How To Protect Yourself

There are a few tips Levin has to also better protect consumers during this vulnerable time of year, known as his “holiday rules of the road”:

  1. Always use a credit card for purchases rather than a debit card. “A credit card is the bank’s money, not your direct money, and usually they have better fraud protections,” Levin says. Just be sure you can pay down the bill at the end of the grace period so you don’t take on debt.
  2. Use long and strong passwords and do not share them across websites. “If you are breached anywhere, you are breached everywhere,” Levin states. He also suggests using a password manager and enrolling in 2-factor authentication where possible. 
  3. If you set up security questions and answers on websites, don’t use real facts. “You don’t really need to give a vendor your mother’s real maiden name or your real high school or street you grew up on. The websites don’t care; it’s not an investigation to get security clearance,” Levin says. Using fake info will set scammers off track if they do know your personal info. “Just don’t be so creative you forgot the answer you gave,” Levin cautions. 
  4. Don’t use public Wi-Fi for any transactions. “Use secure sites and secure apps and use virtual private networks always,” he says.

Levin says these scams can happen to anyone and it’s important to be proactive to avoid becoming a victim.

“Everyone has to understand that we are up against people that are sophisticated, creative and persistent,” he says. “So many people will say, ‘Who possibly would want to hack me? I’m just a regular person.”

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“But, for everyone who looks in the mirror and sees themselves, when a hacker, scammer or identity thief looks at you they see Beyonce and Jay-Z. Because you have what they want. You have financial information, you have personal information that can be used for identity theft.”

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About the Author

Selena Fragassi joined GOBankingRates.com in 2022, adding to her 15 years in journalism with bylines in Spin, Paste, Nylon, Popmatters, The A.V. Club, Loudwire, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine and others. She currently resides in Chicago with her rescue pets and is working on a debut historical fiction novel about WWII. She holds a degree in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago.
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