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12 Scams of Christmas: Protect yourself this holiday season

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Posted at 7:12 PM, Dec 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-24 16:51:29-05

According to the Better Business Bureau, online shopping scams peak in December. Protect yourself from scams as you shop online, give to different charities and connect with loved ones. We’ve included tips from the BBB, FBI and Jupiter Police Department.

DAY 1: PHONY WEBSITES AND SHAM SHIPPING NOTIFICATIONS
Our tip is a two-for-one, just like those holiday deals you hope to catch before Santa’s sleigh takes flight. First beware of phony websites. They look like the real thing, but scammers are behind them and they want to steal your financial information.

  • Check the URL to make sure you’re not on a fake site.
  • If a seller asks you to pay with a gift card or wire transfer, run.
  • Pay with a credit card for the most protection.
  • Only shop through a secure Wi-Fi connection.

Lastly, avoid sham shipping notifications. “It is shady and it is preying on that sense of urgency that you have to do something now about it,” said Supervisory Special Agent Jessica Orench with the FBI’s Miami Field Office.

  • Put your cursor over the link to see if it’s from a strange email address.
  • You can also call the shipper directly and ask if you have a package on the way.

DAY 2: SOCIAL MEDIA SCAMS
Beware of social media scams this holiday season. There are a few things here you want to look out for.

First be wary of raffles or contents, especially anything where you’re asked to put in your financial info. You may have heard of a recent one: secret sister. The scam promises you numerous gift cards if you purchase one $10 card to get things started.

Even if you don’t have to put in your credit card number, scammers could just be looking for more specific information about you.

”Usually those [raffles] are trying to get you to click on a link, where you’re going in an providing personal information that a scammer is harvesting about you,” said Orench. She explained that sometimes scammers use the raffles to gather more information about you then, so they can specifically scam and target you big time later.

Next, the BBB also warns of buying from unknown retailers who might advertise through social media ads. Recently, a faux quilt company promised hand-stitched quilts for Christmas through their ads, but after people purchased them, the company never delivered the merchandise.

Beware of ads that are too good to be true. Like a 35-inch curved TV for just $69? Don’t fall for it.

The BBB found 80 to 90 percent of people failed to recognize fake ads and websites, making them more profitable to scammers than robo-calls.

DAY 3: FAKE CHARITIES
This time of year is also called the giving season. On Day 3 of our 12 Scams of Christmas, we want to highlight phony charities.

The FBI says fake charities advertised on social media, through fake websites or through crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter.

We asked Orench how scammers trick people into thinking the charity is legitimate. “They shouldn’t hopefully if you’re doing your research. They may be pulling at your heartstrings with a personal story that needs giving.

Orench says phony charities have a tendency to come up more during the holiday season when people are ready to spend more and give more.

“Deal directly with the charities as much as possible. It’s great to give, just do your research and give deliberately,” said Orench.

Don’t let scammers take advantage of your giving spirit this holiday season.

  • Much like the fake retailers and fake websites we mentioned on Day 1, avoid clinking on links through social media ads or emails.
  • Instead, type the charity into google and research it first.
  • Go to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service's website to make sure the charity is registered in Florida.
  • You can also check with the BBB.

DAY 4: GIFT CARDS AND COUPONS
Gift cards and coupons are a common gift during the holiday season, but scammers may try to compromise them before you unlock the cash inside.

It all happens before you purchase the card.

Scammers might physically go to a store and tamper with cards that haven’t been purchased yet. They’ll write down card numbers and pin numbers so once someone purchases they card, the scammer can unlock the cash inside.

They can then use the card online before you even have a chance.

“As legitimate consumers, the best thing we can do is to out the scammers and know as much as possible about their techniques and attempts,” said Orench. “The best thing we can do is report it.”

Here’s what the FBI says to look for:

  • Make sure you’re buying a card with its integrity intact.
  • Check for cards for evidence of tampering.
  • Look for scratches, make sure the packaging is still intact and the pin code strip hasn’t been wiped away.

DAY 5: PHISHING LINKS
Did you know there are 4,000 ransomware attacks every day? And there’s a new victim of this crime every 14 seconds.

The Jupiter Police Department says one of the best ways to fool you is through phishing emails. The email might look like it’s from your bank, a popular retail or your healthcare company for example. However, the email isn’t legit, and if you click on a link, it could infect your computer with malware.

“You can see South Florida is just covered with incidents,” said the Town of Jupiter’s Director of Information Systems, Karl Craig, at a recent Coffee With A Cop event. Craig showed all residents who attended how to recognize a phishing email, and everyone who talked to Contact 5 afterwards said they learned something new.

So how can you spot a phishing email? Craig recommends the following:

  • Look at sender’s email address and make sure it matches the name of the company.
  • If the message creates a sense of urgency, that’s a red flag.
  • Look for emails that are poorly written or are riddled with spelling errors.
  • Avoid emails with suspicious attachments.

To avoid these scams, Craig recommends not opening emails from anyone you don’t know or recognize. Next, do not click on any links or attachments. Craig says 30 percent of phishing emails are opened and 12 percent of users click on infected links or attachments. Delete the email and if the scammers were trying to mimic a legit company, consider reporting it to appropriate law enforcement officials.

DAY 6: FAKE CUSTOMER SERVICE NUMBERS
Have you ever needed help from a company and just wanted to talk to a real person on the phone? Well scammers on now preying on that need for human connection by setting up fake customer service numbers.

Contact 5 met a Jupiter business owner who was victimized by this scam earlier this year. Samantha Hierlmeier needed help with Cash App, a mobile app that allows you to pay someone using your cell phone.

After calling a customer service number for the company she found through Google, Hierlmeier thought she was talking to a real Cash App representative when she got someone on the phone. She gave the person some of her info, and moments later $1,900 had been drained from her Cash App account.

“My account name, and the money, everything was gone,” Hierlmeier told Contact 5 investigator Merris Badcock. “I just wanted to talk to somebody. I had no idea – I would think that they are a legit company and they have a phone number.”

Contact 5 reached out to Cash App and they helped her get her money back.

However, if you do not want to be a victim, make sure you’re getting contact info from the company’s actual website. Remember, it can be frustrating to deal with a company only through email, but some companies have done away with customer service numbers to help cut costs.

DAY 7: UNUSUAL FORMS OF PAYMENT
Most people love to find a great deal, and with today’s digital age, it’s easier to find those deals through marketplace websites like Craigslist, Offer Up or LetGo. However, the Jupiter Police Department is warning people about paying for items they find on these sites with unusual forms of payment.

This includes payment forms like gift cards, Green Dot cards, Western Union wire transfers, Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App. Police and the BBB say paying with these forms of payment can hurt your chances at getting your money back later if you run into problems.

“The big tip with this? Try to use common sense. If someone is telling you to go to your local big box store to pick up 20 gift cards to pay for something it is a scam,” said Officer O’Neil Anderson with the Jupiter Police Department. “Most legitimate businesses are going to take regular forms of payment like a credit card a debit card, even a check. When someone is asking you for an unusual form of payment it is definitely a scam, because it is untraceable.”

So how do you avoid it? Anderson recommends the following:

  • Research the seller before you buy.
  • Use a safe payment method whenever possible, like a credit card.
  • Don’t be pressured to make a quick purchase.

Remember, even if you think the person is legitimately selling something through one of these online marketplace sites, make sure you meet in a public place or in the lobby of your local police department for the in-person exchange. If they aren’t being truthful, the seller won’t show or will offer to meet in a secluded place.

DAY 8: EMPLOYMENT SCAMS
During the holiday rush, folks may be looking for extra cash now more than every, and companies are looking for temporary employees to help cover the extra work load. But the BBB warns not all job opportunities are legit, and most employment scams start with an opportunity to work from home.

“That should raise some red flags,” said the Director of Investigation at the BBB, Art Forster, who admits that even he has been targeted by fake employment scammers. “I have a couple that have been sent to me personally. I don’t know how I got on their list, but they say, ‘We have a wonderful position. Work from home for up to $3,000 a month plus a bonus,’” said Forster.

Recently, the BBB has seen fake job opportunities for “package handlers”, “quality inspectors”, and “escrow assistants”. Package handlers, for example, will receive packages to their home, open the box to check for contents and damages, then put on a new shipping label and send the package to another location. “When that shipping label comes off, that should raise some red flags too,” said Forster.

Employees will work for a month, but when payday rolls around? “The company will close off access to their online portal,” said Forster, and you don’t get paid.

If you thought not getting paid was bad enough, Forster says a lot of these fake companies use their victimized employees for one more thing. “Under the guise of employment, many people fill out a W-4 and provide their employment and personal identifying information,” said Forster. “[The W-4 and ID] is then use to perpetuate identify theft.”

In the last month, at least 15 employment scams have been reported to the BBB out of Florida, according to Scam Tracker.

To stay ahead of the game, Forster recommends the following:

  • Ask the company for their tax ID number, state corporation papers, and local business license.
  • Check Google Maps and make sure they have an actual office building and not just a P.O. Box address.
  • Try to meet potential employer in person, and don’t just deal with them over the phone or through email.
  • Google the company’s name alongside the words “scam” or “fraud” and see what comes up.

DAY 9: GRANDPARENT SCAMS
This tip isn’t just for the holidays. The Jupiter Police Department says they get these scams all year round. They are called “granny” or “grandparent” scams.

Here’s how it works. Scammers will contact an elderly person and pretend to be a grandchild in trouble. The fake grandchild needs money to get out of whatever situation they are in. They might tell the grandparent they are in jail or have been kidnapped.

Jupiter police detectives say they have seen grandparents lose anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands or dollars in just a few minutes, thinking they were protecting their own flesh and blood.

“[The scammers] don’t want the individual to get off the phone. They say, ‘Hey if you hang up I’m going to be in trouble,’” said Officer Anderson. “It could be an accident, they are in jail, they have been kidnapped. The big thing with that is that the [scammer] does not know the name of the grandchild.”

Police say do not be afraid to hang up the phone immediately and contact the grandchild or parent on a direct number to check and make sure everything is ok.

If you did fall for the scam, do not be embarrassed. Remember, scammers usually will call back the next day asking for more money. That is your second red flag that you should hang up and call local law enforcement. Investigators may not be able to catch the scammers if they are overseas, but you do have a shot at justice if the scammers are operating domestically. So report it, and help them build a case.

DAY 10: COUNTERFEIT GOODS
Maybe you forgot to buy some last-minute gifts, but money is tight so you’re look for a good deal. Be warned: that good deal could be for a counterfeit item and not the real thing

Fake designer handbags, knock-off Nikes and faux Ugg boots? These are just some examples of ads reported to officials of fake items trying to pass as the real deal.

“They are trying to reach you on social media. They are trying to reach you in your inbox. They are trying to reach you on third party resellers,” said Orench. “The discount that is being offered on [the items] could be very big red flags on whether or not you are shopping counterfeit goods.”

So how do you avoid it? Research the retailer first before you hand over your credit card info. Also, check for reviews. Ultimately, if you purchase from these sites and nothing shows up, there is no customer service on the other line to help you.

Remember, if you knowingly buy counterfeit goods the BBB warns you could be funding overseas criminal enterprises while simultaneously hurting mom and pop businesses.

DAY 11: ACCIDENTAL OVERPAYMENT
Christmas is just two days away! That means two more days of our 12 Scams of Christmas. Today we are highlighting accidental overpayment scam. Here’s how it works:

Say you’re selling something online. You find a buyer who make a generous offer. However, when buyer pays you, usually with a check, they send you too much money. The buyer will reach out asking you to refund the extra charges, and Officer Anderson says that is where the red flag comes in, because after you issue a refund for the overpayment, you’ll find out the buyer’s check never actually cleared.

“One of two things happens,” said Anderson. “Either you’re out of your money, the item, or both.

“The major tip with that? If it is a check and an overpayment do not deposit it. If it is an electronic funds transfer, wait a few days before you send the item out that you are selling. Check that it is an legitimate transaction and it clears your bank account.”

Jupiter detectives say this used to only happen with checks, but they have started seeing this same scam pop up when people pay with mobile apps like Venmo, Cash App or Zelle.

REPORT IT!
Don't be embarrassed. These things happen. If you’ve been scammed make sure you report it to at least one (if not all) of the following resources:

DAY 12: PUPPY SCAMS
The final day of our 12 scams of Christmas is here. Today we are featuring scam which tugs at your heartstrings.

Of all the scams out there, Art Forster with the Better Business Bureau says puppy scams are some of the cruelest.

“Puppy scams are - how should I say it? Pretty mean,” said Forster, who notes people who fall for these scams start out by browsing the internet for a particular breed. “A French Bulldog, a Teacup Chihuahua, Pomeranians … some cats, Persians.”

The animal lover finds some adorable photos and falls in love with their future pet online.

“With that emotional door open, the exploit begins,” said Forster.

First, scammers charge $500 to $600 for the animal. “From there, with shipping, that is $300. A special crate can be $400,” said Forster.

Then, scammers want another couple hundred bucks for shots, and more money for special food and water during the animal’s journey.

“If you try to back out of the deal … the dog or animal is going to die on the tarmac, and you will be charged with animal cruelty or abandonment,” said Forster. “You pay more money to continue the process, to bring [the animal] towards you, which will never happen.

“They will keep going until you run out of money," he said.

Forster recommends the following to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Run the breeder you’re interested in through the BBB’s website. If they have a history of bad behavior, they will have a profile.
  • Check to make sure the breeder’s website has been established for a long time and wasn’t just listed a few days ago.
  • Make sure they have an address and direct phone number, since many of these scam websites operate only via email.
  • Beware of unusual forms of payment. Puppy scammers usually won’t take a credit card.
  • You can always check the American Kennel Club for register breeders, too.

“I’ve seen people spend $2,000, $3,000 and, of course, this is likely just pictures off the internet. [The scammers] are experienced fraudsters, and they can make it look good,” said Forster.