Holiday Scams: 9 Concerns About Consumer Safety at Least a Quarter of Americans Don’t Know

Confused woman paying online on christmas holidays lying on a bed in an hotel room.
AntonioGuillem / Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to a new AARP study, “already-rampant” shopping scams are likely to increase in frequency with the approach of the holiday season as more criminals attempt to fleece money out of victims.

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In surveying 2,102 Americans aged 18 or older for its report, AARP found that three-quarters of respondents had experienced (or had been targets of) business-impersonation fraud like phony charity requests, online shopping scams and fake order or shipping confirmation swindles.

“You’re going to get more emails and texts for legitimate holiday shopping deals this time of year,” stated AARP fraud expert Kathy Stokes. “But you may get just as many that are scams. And these criminals are so good at what they do, it can be hard to tell the difference.”

Aside from a wealth of information gained pertaining to perceptions and experiences with consumer fraud, the AARP study looked at safe shopping practices and consumer awareness by asking respondents nine true or false questions.

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Although the survey indicated that 64% of U.S. consumers strongly agree that increased protection is required from lawmakers, a disconcerting number of Americans lack the knowledge to protect themselves from fraud. The study noted that most respondents, 78%, were unable to answer seven or more fraud-related questions correctly. Here are the results:

  1. Only 36% of respondents answered “Online retailers like Amazon and eBay will request your login information to provide customer support” as a falsehood correctly. Retailers should never have a reason to request your login information.
  2. A significant 42% of those polled believed (correctly) that paying a small shipping or handling fee to a business for a free trial was a risky consumer practice. AARP warned consumers to be careful of fake businesses trying to lure them into “free” trials or constrictive subscriptions.
  3. The use of peer-to-peer payment platforms increases every year. But despite their growing popularity, many shoppers are unaware of their benefits and limitations. When it comes to apps like Cash App, Zelle or Venmo, 43% correctly answered that these payment methods do not have the same consumer protections as credit cards. In fact, the opposite is true.
  4. Peer-to-peer payment apps were originally intended to be used to transfer money between people who know one another personally, and although companies are starting to better protect users, P2P payments should be used primarily between known and trusted parties. A full 54% of respondents answered that this was true.
  5. A majority, 54%, also knew that paying for a vacation rental found on apps like Airbnb or VRBO outside of the app was not a safe payment method (for example, sending money with a P2P app). As the study suggested, “A request for payment outside the app is a clear sign of fraud.”
  6. Surprisingly, exactly half of respondents felt that “When searching online for customer support, the first customer service phone number that appears on your search results will connect you with a legitimate person from that company” was true. When in doubt, always search secure company sites or consult official bills or statements for legitimate contact numbers.
  7. When asked if “Ads for merchandise that you see on social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, or other places online are trustworthy” was true or false, 57% of those surveyed correctly identified this as false. Harmful ads for counterfeit products have invaded social media, causing serious problems for brands and consumers alike. 
  8. Fortunately, 64% of respondents knew that using a credit card to make purchases online is still the safest way to pay. As the study pointed out, although credit card usage can come at a high cost for businesses, cardholders can often avoid the financial liability for unauthorized transactions.  
  9. Additionally, a healthy 67% are aware that regularly updating software provides protection against fraud and can stop data breaches.

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As persistent as scammers are, there are ways to defend yourself. Search trusted sites and you’ll find plenty of advice. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation site advises consumers to follow these four protective approaches:

  • Practice good cybersecurity hygiene (don’t click on any suspicious links and avoid giving password or account information).
  • Know who you’re buying from or selling to (verify legitimate websites and seller information, and do your research).
  • Be careful how you pay (never e-transfer money directly to a seller and avoid pre-paid gift card payment).
  • Monitor the shipping process (track your purchases; if selling, authorize the cardholder and be careful of mismatched residence and shipping addresses).
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About the Author

David Nadelle is a freelance editor and writer based in Ottawa, Canada. After working in the energy industry for 18 years, he decided to change careers in 2016 and concentrate full-time on all aspects of writing. He recently completed a technical communication diploma and holds previous university degrees in journalism, sociology and criminology. David has covered a wide variety of financial and lifestyle topics for numerous publications and has experience copywriting for the retail industry.
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